Tens of thousands of university students in England need urgent help to stop “digital poverty” from hindering their studies during lockdown, according to a group of vice-chancellors and higher education bodies.
While the government has provided laptops and other devices to disadvantaged school pupils and college students in England, the group says university students have been ignored, with little or nothing done to help them access remote learning while campuses are off-limits.
The group including Jisc – previously known as the Joint Information Systems Committee, which maintains UK higher education’s digital networks – has written to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to warn of a “lost generation” of students, especially those from disadvantaged families.
The letter, backed by most vice-chancellors and principals, says it is critical for the country’s 1.8 million university students to have equal access to learning while so many are locked out of lecture theatres and libraries. Several institutions, including the London School of Economics, have told students that teaching will be online only, for the rest of the academic year.
“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 in unused student housing,” states the letter backed by leadership groups Guild HE, Universities UK and UCISA.
The appeal comes as the government in Wales announced a further £40m in support for students, including funding to address digital poverty, according to the education minister, Kirsty Williams.
“Our universities have worked tremendously hard to support their students, ensuring learning has continued, while putting measures in place to protect their students, staff and their local communities,” Williams said. “This funding will allow them to build on that good work.”
In England, the government has only given an extra £20m to support students in difficulties since the start of the academic year. Any other support is expected to come out of existing funds.
Andrew Proctor, a pro vice-chancellor for digital policy at Staffordshire University, said institutions such as his were having to loan out hundreds of computers and licences for essential software to students so they could keep up with their studies.
He said: “We know that students at Staffordshire University are disproportionally affected by digital poverty. About 47% of our student body come from disadvantaged backgrounds and more than 50% are mature learners.
“Many students don’t have access to study spaces at home: they might be single parents or carers and so the pressures they face are very high.
“Some parents have had no choice but to share their laptop across the family while home schooling and nobody – young nor older – should face such barriers in pursuing their education. A parent’s commitment to their child’s education should not be at the cost of their own.
“Universities cannot alone end digital poverty and more must be done to ensure that during these difficult times people are not left behind because of an increasing digital divide.”
The letter calls for an urgent meeting between universities, the government and telecommunication companies, to avoid creating “an even deeper and more long-term digital divide” in education.
It tells Williamson: “We urge you to take action now on behalf of all higher education students experiencing digital poverty, or risk creating a lost generation of young people who are missing out on their education.”