In the current COVID-19 pandemic landscape the inconvenient truth of the imminent return to campus is that there are very few, if any, universities with the infrastructure and facilities to accommodate all students to fully physically return to a campus as before come September (start of session). How we deliver the ‘university experience’, how we teach, timetable, socialise, debate and examine is going to need to change. The temptation in times of crisis is to develop a strategy to cater for the majority, to strive for student numbers and financial assurances. It is, however, vital we challenge ourselves to think about the full diversity of our students and staff, and develop an environment which works for all. We need to ensure inclusive approaches, with flexibility for individual needs, are embedded in decision making throughout, as the impact of relegating underrepresented groups to an afterthought could be devastating.
We all know the task is significant, even daunting, and the list of considerations is a potentially endless number of seemingly impossible ‘how do we? questions.
How do we…
- ensure equity of experience and outcome between online learners and those physically on campus?
- make sure we hear the unheard voices of staff and student groups?
- provide all students and staff with access, learning environments and the digital skills to engage with online learning, which in itself needs to be accessible?
- adapt space for social distancing whilst ensuring socially distanced access for those with mobility aids is still possible?
- cater for student parents and carers who may not be able to physically return to campus?
- create a feeling of safety for students on campus who are at higher-risk of becoming seriously unwell from the COVID-19 virus, or who do not feel safe?
- support students who lipread in environments where face coverings are required?
- mainstream inclusive curriculum design and assessment into rapidly redesigned programmes?
- Socialise students online and develop student and staff communities?
- Create online and physical spaces to allow for planned happenstance and innovation?
- Combat racial hate crime (including cyberbullying) in the wake of the pandemic?
- Provide socially distanced faith space?
The list goes on…
It is easy to overlook the fact that behind each ‘how do we?’ are students and staff whose experiences and opportunities could be at detriment if decisions do not properly consider their needs. There is a significant risk that rapid and one-dimensional changes to the university experience will compound inequalities and set back a generation of students whose needs do not fit into the box of the majority. History has shown us that taking a one-size fits all approach can lead to, and exacerbate, structural inequalities and compound the disadvantages faced by minority groups.
Inequalities in higher education
Inequalities in higher education are not new and have been well documented. Advance HE’s (2019) student and staff statistical reports highlight some of these, including the degree awarding gap for BAME students, gaps in continuation rates, in access for Widening Participation students, a gender pay gap and leadership tiers lacking in diversity, to name a few. Only 0.6% of professors are black and only 3.1% of heads of institution are from BAME backgrounds. Only 27% of governing bodies have women Chairs (Jarboe,2018), women make up less than 25% of all professors with only 2.1% being BAME women compared to 67.4% white men. The inequalities in higher education are longstanding and deep-rooted.
In England, the Office for Students, through ambitious access and participation plans, has set the target to eliminate inequalities through addressing:
- the gap in entry rates at higher tariff providers between the most and least represented groups,
- the gap in non-continuation between the most and least represented groups,
- the gap in degree outcomes between white and black students,
- the gap in degree outcomes between disabled and non-disabled students.
Even with the best-laid plans, achieving these targets are stretching and complex, requiring a coordinated, practical approach backed by investment and buy-in.
The risk of compounding inequalities in the wake of the pandemic is significant, as too is the risk that new inequalities emerging will spiral unchecked as the sector grapples to come to terms with the infamous ‘new normal’. The health inequalities surfacing in society are not independent of those we see in the higher education sector. Socioeconomic background, those with underlying health conditions and BAME communities are all impacted disproportionately by the COVD-19 virus, and these same groups face inequality in higher education, too. There are also the lockdown measures put in place to combat the virus to consider, which has impacted particular groups disproportionately – care givers, those in inner-cities, those with mental health conditions.
Aside from how these inequalities will trickle into access and participation in higher education, there is a risk that they could compound existing inequalities to exasperate challenges. How will the documented increased risk of the virus to BAME communities impact on BAME student’ comfort in returning to campus, on continuation rates if campuses are not perceived as safe places, and on degree awarding gaps if programmes and assessments are not equitable across different learning modes? If caregivers are juggling competing demands on their time between child or parental care during lockdowns, how will this impact their ability to engage with material online or attend campus in person? It is important too to consider how socioeconomic background may have an impact on access to a quiet place to study at home, or on connectivity and technology availability. What will be the employment options and opportunities be for students emerging from their studies into a post-COVID economy, and how will this impact groups disproportionately?
Inclusion in a socially distanced or blended campus needs to consider new and long-standing inequalities and the interaction between them if we are going to be successful in eliminating these for the future.
The catalyst for change
Inclusion was one of five topic areas explored in facilitated workshops as part of the Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project. The discussions were rich and varied, but also it was clear that the challenge of access, inclusion, belonging and supporting students from often marginalised groups is embedded across the other four themes of discussion, and should be mainstreamed in every key decision. Unlike the other topics of Induction, Space and Place, Design and Delivery and Quality, inclusion cuts across all activities and components of the university, and was already well overdue for substantial review and change before the virus emerged.
There are difficult decisions to be made in an uncertain future, but there is a silver lining to the rapid change we are undergoing as a sector. While the risk of compounded inequalities remains significant, there is the opportunity for the sector to use this period of change as a catalyst to eliminate long-standing inequalities and to build a ‘new normal’ or ‘next normal’ which is fairer and more inclusive and which provides access, experience and outcomes to underrepresented groups which is commensurate with their peers.
There is opportunity to change the narrative from ‘how do we?’ to ‘this is how we’ in a sector emerging from a crisis and designing it’s ‘next normal’.
Read the full report: Inclusion - Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project
Next week we will publish the final report in the series – a Capstone Report which focuses on leadership with links to three other over-arching themes: communication, partnership, and wellbeing.
Advance HE members will be also be able to join the SDCE capstone webinar Higher Education Leadership in the Pandemic Age – from crisis to connected campus 08:30-09:30 BST, 14 July.
We are also hosting a Twitter Chat 15:30-17:30 BST 16 July that everyone can join (using the hashtags #AdvanceHE_chat) to share their views and contribute to this important discussion.