A moment to address digital poverty and embed HE equity

Much of the focus regarding the impact of COVID-19 on higher education globally has been on the future viability of the present model of the university. The nature of teaching, learning, research and the student experience is open to question. This should also, however, be a moment for equity.

It is the students from low-income and other marginalised groups who have suffered the most from the pandemic. In trying to build a better global higher education system in the post- COVID world, the paramount concern should be whether it is a more equitable one that is truly open to those from all social backgrounds to enter and achieve their potential.

The challenge, though, is making this moment happen. On the one hand, there is limited cause for optimism. The evidence regarding the global response to COVID-19 when it comes to supporting low-income and marginalised students is mixed.

In partnership with the Sutton Trust in the United Kingdom, we have undertaken a survey of education experts and government representatives from 45 countries, covering every continent, which aims to assess in more detail the impact of COVID-19 on access and success in higher education for those from low-income and other marginalised groups and the responses by universities and policy-makers.

Internet access and learner support

The message is stark regarding the pressures the pandemic is placing on these groups of students. Across countries, from higher- to lower-income nations, lack of access to the internet is a common challenge.

While it may be assumed that in richer nations internet access is universal, that is not the case. Moreover, although internet penetration may be higher for low-income learners than in lower-income countries, devices are often shared and study space in the home limited.

The message emerging is that online learning limits rather than extends access to higher education for certain groups of students unless it comes with specific supports to meet their needs.

The evidence regarding specific support for learners from low-income and marginalised backgrounds is also mixed. In 60% of the countries in the survey, some form of additional financial support was in place that either focused specifically on students from low-income and marginalised backgrounds or encompassed them.

This finding does, perhaps, provide grounds for cautious optimism. Support was greater in richer countries. Of the 21 OECD countries featured in the study, 19 were providing financial support. This was mainly in the form of tuition fee relief or additional grants.

Canada stands out with its policy of doubling student grants for low-income students. The United States, though, through the CARES Act, has provided US$14 billion in support for students and institutions; the Netherlands has halved tuition fees for students in their first year of higher education; and Germany set aside €100 million (US$118 million) for student support. In Ireland, additional financial support for students has been combined with a €15 million investment in IT equipment for low-income students.

It is not just OECD countries that have found resources to enable access and success for low-income students affected by the pandemic. Indonesia has allowed low-income students to defer their tuition fees while, in the Philippines, students have been offered tuition fee subsidies if they can then participate in work with local schools after graduation.

As encouraging as the policy commitments above appear, though, in most cases the view from respondents to the survey was that more could and needed to be done. The digital poverty issue encapsulated by the limitations on full access to the internet and-or IT equipment appears to be left largely untouched and the financial support, while welcome, either comes with conditions attached or does not reach all those in need.

Committing to equity

Nevertheless, there is a recognition in some parts of the world that the pandemic is hitting the neediest students the hardest. Alongside the financial support outlined above, in Australia educational disadvantage is being taken into account when assessing the performance of students in their upper secondary examinations which are necessary for higher education entry; and in California, a Higher Education Recovery with Equity Taskforce has been established to bring together experts from within and outside the state.

These examples of commitment to equitable access and success in higher education must be built upon. Tuesday 17 November will see the third World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED). The aim of WAHED is to be a catalyst for action to address the inequalities that exist in terms of participation in higher education by social background across the world.

WAHED has never been more important than it is now. It is an opportunity to seize the moment for equity in the global higher education system. If there are changes coming into being that will shape the very nature of higher education across future decades, then they must have commitments to equity built into them.

What these commitments are and how they can be put into place can only be decided by increasing the level and depth of the global conversation on equity. WAHED will be based around a series of six such conversations happening across the world on 17 November, all held in association with University World News.

We hope that they will produce the outline of a roadmap towards a post-pandemic higher education system that includes the individuals and communities who are so often excluded from it.

The six conversations across the world for World Access to Higher Education Day are being hosted by WAHED in association with University World News. You can join them here.

Dr Graeme Atherton is the director of the National Education Opportunities Network in the United Kingdom.