2018 is drawing to a close, and no one can say it’s been a dull year. In politics, we’ve witnessed a historic summit between North Korea and the USA – two countries that many people believed would never meet in their lifetime. In popular culture, movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have showcased how ethnic minority casts can capture worldwide attention. More recently in science, the Chinese scientist He Jiankui has claimed to have successfully altered the DNA of twin human girls to make them resistant to HIV, triggering widespread condemnation. Although it may not seem obvious now, such key global events have the potential to affect millennial concerns such as our education, careers and opportunities as we progress into next year
One overarching theme of 2018 has definitely been Brexit and the negotiations surrounding it, as the UK prepares to sever ties with the European Union in March 2019. These appeared to come to a head in November, when Theresa May announced that a draft deal had been struck with the EU. In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has struggled to sell her deal to her own Conservative party colleagues, with many key figures resigning in protest, but eventually emerged victorious against the vote of no confidence that was drawn up against her. However, whilst May’s draft agreement does hint at what a post-Brexit Britain might look like, it is still difficult to unpick what exactly will happen, even as the deadline looms ever larger around the corner of the New Year.
Although the agreement does safeguard the existing rights of UK citizens living in the EU up to the end of the transition period and vice versa, it does not clarify how ‘onward movement’ will work for Britons who might want to move to another EU country from the one they currently live in after Brexit. It also doesn’t mention what will happen to people who want to work in different countries, which is a pressing concern for British nationals living in the EU. Such ‘mobility issues’ are being pushed aside for now and will be negotiated at a later stage, but May’s emphasis on stopping the free movement of people ‘once and for all’ suggests that there will be a hard Brexit in terms of border control. It is hence likely that it will be harder to find employment in Europe, and access to the Erasmus exchange programmes may become more limited for students. It is also possible that post-graduate students will experience a palpable drop in research funding – between 2007-2013, the UK received €8.8 billion for research, development and innovation purposes from the EU, representing the fourth largest share in the Union. Many prolific figures in science spoke out against Brexit for this very reason, including the late Stephen Hawking, who warned that it would be a ‘disaster’ for science funding.
It might seem like it’s all doom and gloom, but remember – it isn’t certain whether May’s agreement will get the House of Commons’ approval by vote on the 21st January 2019. If it is rejected, the country will go into completely uncharted territory with a whole host of outcomes possible. Arguably, this could be a valuable opportunity for a lot of people – we could end up with a ‘no deal’ scenario, which would please hard Brexiteers who support the UK having complete freedom from the EU’s laws, expenses and trade deals. It is also possible that there could be a general election, or even a second referendum, which many Remain supporters are rooting for. Regardless, the New Year is bound to be full of political ups and downs as the UK attempts to navigate its way to a better future – but we can take comfort in that nothing will change until after the implementation period ends in 2020.
On a more cheerful note, 2018 has seen leaps and bounds for access with regards to higher education opportunities in the UK. Many institutions have made more concerted efforts in recent years to increase the representation of black and minority ethnic (BME) students, with 2017 seeing a record number of 58 black students being admitted to Cambridge. This trend will hopefully continue into next year and beyond, especially given that in August of this year, British rapper Stormzy announced ‘The Stormzy Scholarship’, through which he would personally fund two black students to attend Cambridge by paying for tuition fees and providing a maintenance grant for the duration of an entire undergraduate degree. Stormzy has said that he hopes this scholarship will help young black people realise that ‘it can 100% be an option to attend a university of this calibre’.
Additionally, in June 2018, Baroness Valerie Amos, Director of SOAS, and Amatey Doku, Vice President for Higher Education at the NUS, launched a joint initiative between Universities UK and the NUS to help universities across the country close the attainment gap between white and BME students. As a result, Aston University is emphasising the role of work-based learning after research demonstrated that taking a placement year may have a moderating impact on the BME attainment gap, and other universities such as City University in London are joining Aston in taking part in the ‘Levelling the Playing Field’ project, which aims to scale up existing interventions that are proven to support increased take-up of placement and work-based learning by targeting specific courses and using tailored communications, in order to engage harder-to-reach groups. 2018 has therefore revealed the need to take a more scientific approach to tackling disparity, as well as the need to acknowledge that BME students are not a homogenous group. Hopefully, universities and firms continue to get better at talking and listening to marginalised groups, helping them feel like they belong and that they deserve their place – because we all do.
Every year brings its own achievements and challenges
Finally, one major trend for 2018 has been technology and its rapid advances, with artificial intelligence (AI) in particular having been an exciting field to watch. 2018 was the year of ‘deep fake’ technology, with regards to AI-augmented videos that superimposed one person’s face onto another person’s body, most notably with Trump and Obama. This could have a worrying effect on the already troublesome world of fake news, but researchers are working on ways to spot these deep fakes, and we will hopefully become better equipped to dodge these in 2019. 2018 was also the year when Christie’s reached a new milestone by auctioning off a painting created by AI, which has raised interesting questions as to what it means to be human – has AI crossed a line here by entering a field that is viewed as profoundly human?
Technology has undoubtedly touched many facets of our lives in 2018, including education, which has continued to evolve and be moulded by technological advancements. However, this has not manifested by changing the way that we best learn as much as it has changed the tools we use and what we focus on. Whilst we already have utilised apps to learn languages and YouTube videos to play musical instruments, when it comes to learning in the classroom, many experts believe that we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible. The majority of universities still require students to buy printed textbooks and attend lectures where they sit and listen passively. Adopting more technology in the classroom, such as machine learning algorithms helping with non-priority tasks such as grading standardised tests and taking attendance could assist educators by freeing up more time for one-to-one interactions with students, encouraging compelling discussion and critical thinking. This has been in development throughout 2018 by companies such as Content Technologies and Carnegie Learning, and perhaps we might benefit from this in the not-so-faraway future.
Every year brings its own achievements and challenges, and 2018 has been no exception for the world. Hopefully, we can take all of 2018’s experiences and learn from them in 2019 – as the generation who will lead, shape and create the future.