‘Double digital divide’ hindering access to equitable higher education, according to ACU survey

The Association of Commonwealth Universities has warned governments and universities to take swift action as the rapid uptake of tech continues to exclude disadvantaged students

Substantial gaps in digital engagement running at different university levels, as well between high and low income countries, signal a ‘double digital divide’ which prevents equitable access to higher education, according to a recent survey by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).

The rising gap between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ undermines global progress in the provision of an “inclusive and equitable quality education” for all by 2030 – the aim of Goal 4 in the Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The ACU argues that, when it comes to digital access and engagement, the widening gap between high and low income countries poses a major threat to the global higher education sector and the prospect of lifelong learning. While 83% of respondents from high income nations claimed to have access to a stable broadband connection, just 63% of those from the upper-middle income bracket had the same level of access; compared to just 38% from the lower-middle income range; and 19% from the lowest income countries.

Fluctuating levels of digital engagement within universities themselves illustrate the significance of the ‘double digital divide’. According to the survey, senior university leaders were most likely to have broadband access (74%), followed by professional services (52%), academics (38%) and students (30%). At 82%, senior leaders and professional services staff were also more likely to report institutional contributions towards devices or data that support remote working, compared to just 45% of students and 40% of academics.

While the pandemic has highlighted the difficulties and disparities of digital education provision, the ACU believes it has also offered insights into necessary improvements and new opportunities. When it comes to online delivery, the most commonly cited challenges include student accessibility (81%), staff training and confidence (79%), connectivity expenditure (76%) and student engagement (71%).

On a positive note, 81% of ACU’s survey respondents felt that the quality of online teaching and learning has considerably improved since the start of the outbreak. Furthermore, 90% believed that a ‘blended learning’ degree – one that incorporates digital classes alongside face-to-face – holds just as much weight as an entirely in-person degree.

Mapping the digital experience of students following the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the entire sector to move online at breakneck pace, the ACU report lays out a series of recommendations for governments and universities to ensure that disadvantaged students don’t fall further behind.

The recommendations for governments include:

  • Prioritising funding for higher education, recognising the sector’s invaluable contribution to society and to post-COVID recovery
  • Providing funding, financing and public-private partnerships to help tackle the digital divide 
  • Promoting digital transformation initiatives within universities to boost access and support lifelong learning
  • Forming alliances between HE leaders, telecoms companies, graduate employers and students to form a common agenda for the sector’s digital future
  • Providing a knowledge platform where institutions can share best practice and advice relating to the digital transition

Key recommendations for universities include:

  • Providing financial and technical support to improve access to data, devices and broadband
  • Identifying and developing specific policies to address the digital divide within the institution
  • Incorporating digital into every element of strategy and planning
  • Recognising that the ability to move research activities online varies massively according to each discipline, putting particular areas at risk

Dr Joanna Newman, chief executive and secretary general of the ACU, believes the rapid digital transformation implemented in response to the crisis “offers encouraging evidence of the resilience of universities across the Commonwealth”, but stresses the dangers the system will face if the ‘double digital divide’ is ignored.

 “It’s because of this persistent digital divide that the ACU is calling on governments and policymakers to help remedy these inequalities, to meet demand for higher education globally,” Dr Newman told ET. “In the post-COVID world, ensuring that all students and universities are able to access online teaching, learning and research will be an essential component of equity in higher education.”

In other news: Ex-Google employees launch virtual school to instil a ‘Google mindset’


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