A group of higher education sector leaders has called on the government to urgently make funds available to tackle digital poverty, accusing ministers of offering “little or nothing to support higher education students” during the cycle of lockdowns since March 2020.
The letter organised by Jisc – which manages higher education IT networks – was signed by the chief executives of Universities UK (UUK), GuildHE and Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (Ucisa) on behalf of senior leaders of universities across the country.
Those senior leaders allege there is now a real risk of a “lost generation” of students because of inequality, digital poverty and government inaction.
“Universities have moved mountains to provide learning and teaching online since the first lockdown and are now much better equipped to deliver a quality curriculum online. However, without urgent action to ensure students can study online affordably, the government is risking creating an even deeper and more long-term digital divide in education,” the letter states.
The chief executives of Jisc, UUK and the Association of Colleges wrote to the government to outline their concerns that poor internet access will exacerbate educational inequality in May last year.
Government ministers in England have repeatedly stated that it has provided financial support to universities to help alleviate disadvantaged students, but today’s letter appears to pour cold water on those reiterated assurances.
The government has only made a one-off £20 million payment to support students in difficulties since the start of the 2020/21 academic year.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan also referred on at least 25 occasions in parliament between September and December 2020, to a £256-million fund for universities to support disadvantaged students in hardship, including everything from self-isolation to the digital divide, mental health and access and participation plans.
These funds are not, in fact, new, exclusive or exceptional: this premium funding is distributed annually via the Office for Students to aide universities support students at risk of dropping out.
This letter appears to be the culmination of weeks, perhaps months, of frustration on the part of the HE sector. “Jisc has undertaken several discussions with telecommunications companies which do not seem to see the value in supporting university students,” the letter states. “It is also disappointing that the government’s recent announcement to make free data available to school and college learners excludes higher education students, who face the same barriers of cost and connectivity.”
The signatories said the government decision not to include HE students in its Get Help With Technology scheme is “unfair… [and] causes learners distress, harms their wellbeing, and creates inequalities”.
An OfS report from September 2020 includes survey findings that suggest 52% of students were impacted by slow/poor wifi and 18% lack access to a laptop, computer or tablet.
OfS chair Sir Michael Barber cited digital poverty as a significant risk to learning this academic year and is leading a review of the issue on behalf of the English HE regulator.
A third of higher education students were unable to access their education online in the last academic term, according to a survey released in September 8 by the National Union of Students (NUS).
According to a survey for Jisc, 54% of learners feel disadvantaged to some extent in their learning as a result of insufficient access to digital equipment, software or broadband, and 60% of leaders surveyed estimated up to a quarter of current learners at their organisation are disadvantaged because of insufficient access to digital equipment, software or connectivity.
“In universities many students cannot access their education due to the cost of data, living in shared accommodation (whether at home or in halls), or in rural areas where connectivity is weak. Similarly, many parents of students who are above the poverty line are now borderline due to the pandemic and, while they can support their children to remain in education, they cannot afford the additional cost of subsidising their child’s connectivity – especially for those also paying the bill for broadband bills in unused student housing,” the signatories said.