Sector bodies call for government to end digital poverty and prevent ‘long-term digital divide’ in HE

Jisc, UUK, GuildHE and Ucisa have today penned a letter to the education secretary, warning that failure to act could result in a “lost generation” of learners

A group of leading bodies from across the edtech sector have today penned a letter to the UK government, calling for urgent action to end digital poverty in higher education (HE) and prevent a “lost generation” of young people who are currently missing out on education due to being consistently overlooked.

In a letter to secretary of state for education Gavin Williamson, Jisc, Universities UK (UUK), GuildHE, and Ucisa, have warned that failure to address growing inequality across the nation’s HE landscape “risks an even deeper and more long-term digital divide in education”.

In September 2020, new findings on the state of digital inequality among university students started to emerge, with figures published by Wonkhe revealing that 71% of learners lacked access to a quiet study space, with 22% claiming to they were “severely impacted”. On top of this, 56% said they lacked access to appropriate digital course material, with almost one in 10 being “severely impacted”. One in five were restricted by lack of access to a device such as a laptop, desktop or tablet, while over 10% said they were impacted by having too little money to live on.

“Not only is this unfair, but it causes learners distress, harms their wellbeing and creates inequalities, in particular for disadvantaged students”

With the nation now submerged in its third lockdown, institutions have been forced to revert back to online teaching and learning, and sector leaders fear for the long-term impact this could have on an entire generation of students.

Jisc CEO Paul Feldman told ET: “An OfS lockdown survey found that more than half of students felt their learning was impacted by a slow or unreliable internet connection and our own anecdotal feedback indicates that most students need a low cost ‘mobile’ solution to enable their learning. At the moment, too many students are being failed by the telecoms companies.”

The letter, penned to Mr Williamson in response to the growing crisis, says: “While we welcome the government’s action to support college learners through the Get Help with Technology scheme, there has been little or nothing to support higher education (HE) students in the same way.

“Not only is this unfair, but it causes learners distress, harms their wellbeing and creates inequalities, in particular for disadvantaged students.

“It is critical that the 1.8 million university students who are having to learn remotely have equal access to data and devices.

“In universities, many students cannot access their education due to the cost of data, living in shared accommodation (whether at home or in halls), or in rural areas where connectivity is weak.

“Similarly, 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 bills in unused student housing.”

Indicating that approximately half of UK university students are digitally disadvantaged, the letter cites Jisc’s Learning and Teaching Reimagined research, conducted alongside industry partners, which found that digital and data poverty is the fundamental issue preventing the effective delivery of online learning at present.

The letter also explains that, despite the government’s recent efforts to alleviate digital adversity, the demands on hardship funding have doubled, placing significant strain on university resources.

“Universities have moved mountains to provide learning and teaching online since the first lockdown and are now much better equipped to deliver a quality curriculum online,” the letter concludes.

“However, without urgent action to ensure students can get online affordably, the government is risking creating an even deeper and more long-term digital divide in education.

“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.”

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