Covid’s disruptive forces should be harnessed to boost inclusion

Some countries and institutions are already grabbing the chance to widen access, says Graeme Atherton

December 19, 2020
Source: iStock

The pandemic has starkly confirmed just how deeply inequality shapes the lives of individuals and communities across the world. Within higher education, social background has long had a decisive impact on access and success. This only risks being exacerbated by responses to Covid-19.

Take the shift to online learning. Many people would like it to become permanent, at least to some degree, but this ignores the extent of the digital divide that is prevalent everywhere. Financial pressures on both institutions and students may also lead to more of those from low-income backgrounds dropping out or failing to progress, while crowding out mechanisms designed to help them.

So far, however, there has been little research that looks specifically at the impact of the pandemic on students from low-income and marginalised backgrounds, or at the ways in which universities and governments are supporting (or failing to support) them. It was precisely to address these issues that we at the National Education Opportunities Network recently surveyed university leaders, academics and civil servants in 45 countries, in collaboration with the Sutton Trust.

What we discovered, as we have set out in a reportGlobal University Access and Covid-19, was that around 60 per cent of countries are providing additional financial support for low-income students. This ranges from doubling grants in Canada to an additional payment of just €200 (£180) to those experiencing hardship in France. We even found examples of low-income nations, such as Colombia, Ghana and the Philippines, that have managed to fund additional help for students.

As for the delivery of learning, five of the countries surveyed have seen a significant shift online. This was not always coupled with specific support for students from low-income backgrounds, though in the Republic of Ireland, €15 million was allocated to widening-access offices in universities to help them buy ICT equipment for such students. The issue of the digital divide came up again and again. So too did the lack of any meaningful attempts by most universities and governments to address it.

On a more positive note, the survey did find examples of universities adapting their admissions procedures to reflect the impact of the pandemic on low-income students, coming up with innovative ways to build a sense of belonging. In a number of Australian states, for instance, a “consideration of educational disadvantage” has been built into how school examination results are assessed during the admissions process. In California, a Higher Education Recovery with Equity Taskforce has been set up by the state governor to produce a road map for a higher education system that is more equitable than before. And at the institutional level, the University of Kansas, while accepting the need for physical distancing, has rejected the idea of “social distancing” because of its potential impact on dropout rates among low-income students; the institution is committed instead to social proximity, creating online communities and maximising any opportunities for safe physical gatherings.

Despite the scale of the disruption caused by the pandemic, then, there are powerful examples of countries and universities maintaining a commitment to access and success for low-income students. What we need to do far more widely is use the disruptive forces that have been unleashed as an opportunity to boost inclusion.

So what would this mean in practice? An essential element of such inclusive disruption is an acknowledgement, long overdue, that low-income students need adequate financial support, social proximity (as opposed to distancing) and strategic collaborations that aim to build a more equitable system after we emerge from the pandemic.

We also need to ensure that online learning becomes part of such inclusive disruption. It has the potential to open up higher education to communities that traditional face-to-face models have overlooked. But in the absence of national digital poverty strategies, it is likely to create new divisions rather than address old ones. Initiatives that give the appearance of democratising access via virtual, cheaper methods of delivering higher education in more “flexible” ways may, in reality, ghettoise those from low-income and marginalised backgrounds into low-quality and low-value provision. It is crucial that we keep this in mind.

As the examples described above demonstrate, the disruption in higher education caused by the pandemic can lead to far more inclusive outcomes and can help confront inequalities that have largely been taken for granted. Such inclusive disruption will only become the norm, however, if we keep pushing the importance of access and success for low-income and marginalised students in global discussions about higher education and the pandemic. There is an opportunity here to build more equitable policies and practices. We must seize it.

Graeme Atherton is the director of the National Education Opportunities Network.

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