There is no doubt that 2020 has been a turbulent year for higher education. Universities and their staff have had to dramatically adapt operations in response to Covid-19 and, as we continue to live with the virus, we must constantly prepare for ever-changing scenarios, whilst ensuring diversity and inclusion remain at the top of a university’s list of priorities.
This is something that universities must have front of mind both this academic year and beyond. Only by fully embracing open and inclusive education can we ensure that students from all backgrounds are able to learn the skills they need to adapt in this changing world.
With our campus located in Stoke-on-Trent – one of the lowest ranking local authorities for social mobility in England – we are acutely aware of the need for widening the accessibility of our courses. Almost a quarter of the city’s children live in poverty, compared to a national average of less than 17%, and a third of Stoke-on-Trent’s workforce is employed in low-skilled jobs.
Even before the pandemic hit, we knew the UK had a widening digital skills gap. The 2019 Open University Business Barometer found that more than 68 per cent of employers were struggling to find workers with the right skills and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Institutions must think creatively about how they are developing students’ skill-sets — and interest — in taking on digital roles, which are becoming increasingly crucial to our economy.
We have seen first-hand how alternative and creative degrees like esports, games design and cyber security have encouraged students to go to university who previously didn’t think it was for them
As a result of this, universities need to do all they can to close the growing digital skills gap in a fair and inclusive way. In the first instance, universities must ensure they have flexible admissions processes. As we saw this summer, many students were left devastated by the grading systems and lost out on their university places – particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Not every young person has equal access to education, so it’s important that passionate students with potential are able to access all courses that a university has to offer.
This means not focussing solely on grades, and offering alternative routes in by offering foundation years for students to gain the qualifications they might not have been able to obtain at school. At Staffordshire University, we have a Step Up to Higher Education course, which is designed for individuals who want to return to education and develop the key academic skills needed for university level study.
Universities must also think about what their degrees are offering students. We have seen first-hand how alternative and creative degrees like esports, games design and cyber security have encouraged students to go to university who previously didn’t think it was for them. Degrees with an industry-focus then also enable students to learn about careers they hadn’t thought possible, and prepare students for life after university.
Within that, it is important that institutions work with industry to ensure students are getting access to employers throughout their degrees. The more that students are exposed to employers through opportunities like industry placements or innovation programmes, the more they will be prepared for the world of work and employers will be aware of the talent out there.
Whilst it has been said that Covid-19 has been a ‘great equaliser’, we know that those who have been worst affected, and will continue to be worst affected, are young people and people from lower-socio economic and minority backgrounds
This is why many of our courses offer placement options. For example, 50 per cent of students within our school of health and social care complete placements within local NHS hospitals alongside their studies. Many have also had the chance to join the frontline battle against Covid-19 through these, with 75 of our students training to become biomedical scientists undertaking placements in hospital pathology laboratories throughout lockdown to help increase coronavirus testing capacities.
Whilst it has been said that Covid-19 has been a ‘great equaliser’, we know that those who have been worst affected, and will continue to be worst affected, are young people and people from lower-socio economic and minority backgrounds. Universities must consider measures to support a wide range of students and give them all the best possible chances of success, to make it through this crisis and beyond.
Professor Martin Jones is deputy vice-chancellor at Staffordshire University
You might also like: Latest Hesa figures on widening participation released