To tackle inequality, look closer at student experiences

There has been increasing research internationally on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the higher education sector and its students. Many studies, such as this one from Australia, show that the pandemic has increased barriers to higher education participation for the majority of learners.

In this context, it is very important to illuminate the situation of students from under-represented groups, for instance, those who are the first in their family to attend university, migrant students and students who study while working since these student groups have been especially at risk during the current crisis.

While there is empirical evidence from the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States showing how first-generation students and students from under-represented groups are experiencing higher education during these challenging times, research evidence in Austria as well as in the other German-speaking countries (ie Germany and Switzerland) is still scarce.

Social and academic integration

Gathering such empirical evidence is vital since inequalities of access to and participation in higher education are especially evident in those countries.

Based on a total of 640 students in Austria, a recent study found that students’ social and academic integration decreased significantly as a result of the closure of universities in 2020. Students had fewer opportunities to work collaboratively with each other or to contact lecturers.

Maintaining relationships with peers, regularly speaking about academic content and developing academic habits are especially important for first-generation students.

The latest Student Social Survey in Austria shows that students from academic families are 2.7 times more likely to enter higher education than their first-generation peers.

In this article, we summarise how students from under-represented groups experienced higher education during the pandemic and we argue that more research as well as political interventions are needed in order to address access and retention issues and ensure the success of all learners.

Pandemic experiences

Over the past two years, higher education institutions in Austria have been closed for weeks at a time and there was a profound shift to remote distance learning until the end of 2021 (with some exceptions, for instance, in art programmes or laboratory work).

Research that explores students’ experiences during the pandemic in Austria can be grouped into four categories: (1) Study conditions, (2) Finances, (3) Student success and (4) Social and academic integration.

Regarding the first category, 36% of students stated that their study conditions worsened as a result of the pandemic and three quarters felt left behind, according to a study by the Institute for Empirical Social Studies (IFES).

From students’ perspectives, the three largest challenges were:

• Uncertainty about examination modalities (performing in online exams) and not being able to plan their lives as students (for instance, in terms of accommodation or face-to-face teaching versus online teaching).

• Second, they stated that they felt less motivated to attend and complete courses online – also due to having less direct contact with peers.

• And, third, some students experienced an increased study workload.

When focusing on under-represented student groups, one study showed that study conditions worsened especially for those with children as well as for students with a chronic illness or disability.

Financial difficulties

As for students’ financial situation, 20% of students lost their jobs during the pandemic. About a third said they had been experiencing financial difficulties since the pandemic began and a quarter stated that their parents’ financial situation had also worsened.

The jobs situation can be explained by the fact that ‘typical student jobs’, like part-time work in restaurants, bars or pubs were halted in Austria. This reduced students’ chances of earning a living and made them dependent on their parents and families.

Also, it was not possible for part-time workers who were students to receive any compensation for reduced working hours (‘Kurzarbeit’).

With reference to under-represented student groups, a German study shows that first-generation students and international students in particular experienced a worsening financial situation.

When it comes to student success, the third category, a study shows that 20% stated that they completed fewer courses. This compares with 25% who said that they were able to complete more courses. However, the study progress of migrant students and students with chronic illness or disability decreased significantly.

While one study found no significant difference in the intention to leave university because of university closures compared to before the pandemic, in a keynote address at a conference organised by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education Science and Research, graduate employment researcher Markus Lörz said that students with children and students with chronic illness or disability were significantly more likely to say they intended to leave university early.

Finally, research shows that both academic and social integration have decreased, with social integration being more negatively affected than academic integration. While social (peer) networks have decreased in general, this has been offset in part by support from lecturers to students. Providing regular and consistent communication has been essential for students.

Listening to students

To summarise, many international studies show that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased educational inequality. Therefore, understanding the barriers encountered by students from under-represented groups has become even more crucial during the current health crisis.

Questions of how students from under-represented groups are experiencing higher education during these challenging times need to be asked to address a broad set of critical issues around access to and participation in higher education.

More qualitative in-depth research is particularly needed to illuminate how different student groups are coping with the pandemic on a personal, social and academic level.

While we already know that valuable relationships with peers and lecturers are crucial for successfully navigating the transition to higher education, a highly important question in this regard is how we can support students in building such relationships in the context of the pandemic.

Higher education institutions might need to adjust their specialist support services, such as their mentoring programmes, counselling or social services.

While policy interventions have mainly focused on the school sector over the last two years, it is time that the voices of university students – especially those from under-represented groups – are finally heard and considered.

Dr Franziska Lessky is based at the University for Continuing Education in Krems, Austria, where she focuses on equity in higher education, and Dr Katharina Resch is a sociologist who currently works at the University of Vienna at the Centre for Teacher Education, Austria.