According to a group of headmaster and higher education institutions, tens of thousands of university students in England urgently need help to prevent “digital poverty” from hindering their studies during lockdown.
While the government has provided laptops and other devices to underprivileged school and college students in England, the group says college students have been ignored and little or nothing has been done to give them access to remote learning while campuses are off limits.
The group included Jisc – formerly known as the Joint Information Systems Committee, which maintains the digital networks of UK higher education – has written the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to warn of a “lost generation” of students, especially those from underprivileged families.
The letter, backed by most of the rectors and directors, says it is critical that the country’s 1.8 million university students have equal access to education, while so many have no access to lecture halls and libraries. Several institutions, including the London School of Economics, have told students that education will be online only for the rest of the academic year.
“Many parents of students who are above the poverty line are now at the border because of the pandemic and while they can support their children to continue their education, they cannot afford the extra cost of subsidizing their child’s connectivity – especially not for those who also pay the bill for broadband in unused student housing, ”said letter supported by leadership groups Guild HE, Universities UK and UCISA
The appeal comes when the government comes in Wales announced an additional £ 40 million to support students, including funding to tackle digital poverty, according to Education Secretary Kirsty Williams.
“Our universities have worked incredibly hard to support their students and ensure that learning has continued, while taking steps to protect their students, staff and their local communities,” said Williams. “With this funding they can build on that good work.”
In England, the government has given just £ 20 million extra since the start of the academic year to support students in difficulty. All other support is expected to come from existing funds.
Andrew Proctor, a pro-vice chancellor for digital policy at Staffordshire University, said institutions like him had to lend students hundreds of computers and licenses for essential software so they could keep up with their studies.
He said, “We know that Staffordshire University students are disproportionately affected by digital poverty. About 47% of our students come from a disadvantaged background and more than 50% are adult learners.
“Many students do not have access to study places at home: they can be single parents or carers and therefore the pressure they face is very high.
“Some parents have had no choice but to share their laptops with the whole family during home schooling, and no one – young or older – should encounter such barriers in their education. A parent’s commitment to the education of their child should not come at the expense of themselves.
“Universities cannot only end digital poverty and more needs to be done to ensure that people are not left behind in these difficult times due to an increasing digital divide.”
The letter calls for an urgent meeting between universities, the government and telecommunications companies to avoid creating “an even deeper and more protracted digital divide” in education.
It tells Williamson, “We urge you to take action now on behalf of all higher education students experiencing digital poverty, otherwise we risk creating a lost generation of young people who will miss their education.”
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