Whatever happened to the carefree hedonism of youth? That stereotype feels quite hollow at the moment. Under lockdown and unsure what the future will bring, today’s students are burdened by worries, and the rapid move to online and remote learning prompted by COVID-19 is highlighting the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Government is under pressure to respond. In higher education, the NUS claims that 80% of undergraduates ae worried about how they will cope financially and is calling for a £60m hardship fund to support university students through this crisis. Meanwhile, a cross-party campaign seeks emergency maintenance grants for learners from low-income backgrounds.
Supporting our most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners at this time is huge concern, and I’m anxious that we do all we can – particularly for those who will struggle to continue learning or keep in touch with friends and teachers while their institution is closed.
That’s why the chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC) and I wrote to the education secretary suggesting a scheme to give learners in need free access to mobile devices so they can continue their studies from home through this period of uncertainty. We were delighted to hear the government commit to delivering this for further education (FE) students – but providing laptops and tablets is only part of the problem; access to the internet requires data, and that costs money.
Working to remove this financial barrier to learning online, telecoms providers in the Republic of Ireland have agreed to make access to educational resource websites ‘zero-rated for all customers where technically feasible’. I’m working with the chief executives of Universities UK (UUK), the AoC, and ucisa, offering to collaborate with government and telecoms companies to support further and higher education (HE) students in the UK by removing mobile data charges for education websites during lockdown.
'A critical time'
Universities face a critical time financially in the coming months. According to a report published this week, the higher education sector faces a £600m black hole in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as prospective undergraduates plan to defer the start of their course.
This is forecast to have a significant impact on jobs and the economy, with universities hit by a £2.6bn shortfall in the next academic year. Overall, the report suggests there will be 230,000 fewer students entering UK universities in 2020-21, as compared to 2019-20 – and it predicts a devastating impact on 91 of the 125 universities it examines.
In response, Labour has asked the government to underwrite HE funding through this crisis. In the meantime, university and college leaders, including those at King’s College London, the University of Edinburgh and St Andrews University, are taking voluntary pay cuts. It’s a worrying time, and the impact for students, staff and the future of some institutions could be huge.
Challenges and inspiration
Through all this, I know that, using technology, colleges and universities are continuing to deliver the exceptional standards of education they’re famed for – yet, in the short-term, there are challenges for many. We’ve heard of online lectures being hacked, sometimes with extreme and disturbing content, prompting some academics to warn that the switch to digital learning during the pandemic may increase harassment at universities.
More broadly, there are fears around high costs involved in moving courses online and, in some cases, concerns over a lack of preparedness. But we’ve seen amazing successes through this rapid and sometimes dramatic move online too. Experiences, such as those at Wolverhampton College, are inspiring - and the long-term benefits of online and digitally-enhanced education are being highlighted, with the former universities minister Jo Johnson noting increased potential to reach global audiences, for example. Jisc is ready to collaborate with the sector to support this change.
Overall, during this unsettled and unsettling time, I’ve been pleased to see education bodies, technology organisations, government and others coming together to help everyone move productively to working online. As researchers at Oxford, South Wales and other universities make steps towards finding a vaccine for COVID-19, I like to reflect on the positives we might all draw from this situation.
Perhaps we could take inspiration from the environmental student campaigners who’ve succeeded in banning investment in fossil fuels at Oxford University, and heed the advice of PhD student Bethan Cornell, who is so impressed with the process of conducting PhD vivas online she feels there will be no need to return to excessive flying habits.
For all the anxiety about the future, I hope we’ll see a positive environmental impact emerge from lockdown. Already, as I open the window of my home office, I notice the absence of aeroplanes overhead. Instead, I now hear birdsong.