Loretta Charles-Cregan, an 18-year-old A-level student, considers herself lucky because her school gave her a laptop to help her do her GCSEs when she was made temporarily homeless after her house flooded. “It’s the only reason I can do my work now,” she says. “It was a blessing in disguise.”
Many students from low-income families like Charles-Cregan’s lack the basic technology they need to study online, including access to a laptop and a reliable broadband connection, along with a quiet place in which to work and complete assessments. But as universities rapidly gear up to deliver their courses online in September if social distancing measures continue, some students are worried about how they will cope.
The prospect is already influencing Charles-Cregan’s decision-making. While she still plans to attend university in September, the coronavirus crisis has made her consider choosing her offer at a London university to stay closer to her home in Ilford. But this wouldn’t solve the problem of how to actually do her work.
“It’s made me a bit more anxious,” she says. “We have the cheapest WiFi, it drops all the time. When I was doing A-levels I went to the library instead, but you can’t do that now. And there’s a lot of us in one house, my family’s quite big, so it’s not somewhere I can get motivated for work.”
Social mobility experts are warning that the shift to online learning could severely hold back some students, including those from poorer backgrounds, care leavers, students with caring responsibilities, and those with disabilities. A National Union of Students survey suggested that one-fifth of students struggle with access, while over half of students who rely on assistive technology felt they lacked the support needed to continue learning.
The NUS is now pressuring universities to better accommodate struggling students through a national approach to exams and assessment. “The most impacted are already the most disadvantaged. This makes no sense when there are solutions available to help them and all students,” says Claire Sosienski-Smith, NUS vice-president for higher education.
“We’ve got to be really careful that digital provision doesn’t compound the inequalities we already see in the educational system,” agrees Anne-Marie Canning, chief executive of social mobility charity The Brilliant Club.
One solution, Canning says, would be for universities should redirect general bursaries aimed at low-income students towards kitting them out with the devices they need for online learning.
Some universities are already starting to do this: York has set up a philanthropic fund to support students with online learning, Coventry is exploring making courses accessible by mobile phone, and one other university plans to provide all its disadvantaged students with WiFi dongles.
But Emma Hardy, the shadow universities minister, says that these hardship loans can be difficult for students to access. “They’re limited, bureaucratic, and very difficult to get paid out,” she says.
Challenges for disadvantaged students extend beyond access to technology. According to research from 2017, these students consistently perform worse through online learning than they do in face-to-face classrooms. “Taking online courses increases their likelihood of dropping out,” the authors wrote.
Chris Skidmore, the former universities minister, warns that these students already struggle with feelings of belonging and are already more likely to drop out of university.
“Remote learning must not allow these groups of students to become ever more remote,” he says. “We can’t afford for care-leavers, estranged pupils, and those from vulnerable and deprived backgrounds to miss out on their potential.”
Ian Dunn, the deputy vice-chancellor at Coventry, says that his university plans to monitor the extent to which students are participating in their courses to give clues as to their wellbeing.
Martin Weller, professor of educational technology at the Open University, suggests that the mingling that happens naturally on campus can be partly reproduced through incorporating icebreaker and discussion activities into online curriculums. “There’s evidence that students who form social bonds tend to stick with a course and not drop out,” he says.
Weller adds that universities need to provide far more structured pastoral care. “That might be problematic for lots of universities that [rely] on precarious staff to provide teaching. Are they going to give them appropriate time and payment for providing a half-hour catch up every week with every student?”
Lucy Gill-Simmen, a lecturer at Royal Holloway University, has offered Zoom catchups to all 70 of her personal tutees to make sure they are coping with the shift to online. “It has a huge impact on my workload,” she says.
But she considers it essential to support her students’ mental health. She’s noticed that some are struggling with the lack of designated study space and proper equipment. “That demotivates them, they don’t feel they’re able to get up and get working.”
Disabled students are also finding support patchy. Piers Wilkinson, NUS disabled student officer, says that although the Disabled Student Allowance funds laptops, it doesn’t cover everything.
“People like myself and others that did computer-based modeling or music and media can’t run the fundamental pieces of software that are required by their degree. So they would have to use the specialist IT suites in their department or university library. With those being closed, they’ve lost access to that.”
Wilkinson adds that although disabled students have been asking universities to roll out lecture capture for years, many have been slow to do this, and staff has not been trained on how to make video content accessible and inclusive.
Deaf students, in particular, find it difficult to lip-read on screens and understand seminars in which multiple people are speaking, and report that many universities do not yet supply subtitles or a British sign language interpreter. Autistic students say they are struggling with the anxiety caused by new systems.
One student from Kingston University, who has dyslexia and dyspraxia, says she is struggling to cope. “I have challenges with coordinating and I find using the online portals unfriendly. It takes me a long time to work it out, and this is not factored in when sessions start,” she says. “I’m finding the entire ordeal very stressful and I have emailed lecturers, but I’ve received no reply.”
A Kingston University spokesperson said: “Students are able to access learning materials through the university’s easily accessible virtual learning environment, Canvas, which is functioning as normal, and we are making additional adjustment for students with a statement of special needs, including making available assistive technology and human support during the assessment period.”