Covid-19 could be a catalyst for a more supportive, inclusive education

Coronavirus has forced many universities to speed up their activity, forgoing the usual (well-meaning) layers of bureaucracy to implement solutions at a rate that far surpasses their standard cycle of change.

There’s no doubt this has come at a price – one aspect being financial – but it has also forced us to confront the factors that were previously cited as barriers to progress.

In the same way that workplaces across the country have been forced to admit that the majority of employees can indeed do their jobs from home, it has fast become apparent that online lectures are a viable mode of learning.

This has paved the way for a more flexible approach to education. Once seen as a niche offering from the likes of Birkbeck and the Open University, the ability to cater for students outside of the traditional “working day” is set to be a basic requirement.

Higher education institutions have done an admirable job of transforming the way they deliver their courses whilst remaining connected with students across the globe (and in various time zones). If this is what can be achieved amidst a global pandemic (and with limited notice), imagine what is possible when the threat to public health rescinds?

A close examination

The timing of the first phase of the pandemic meant that assessments were a core focus of the sector’s response. Many universities adopted a “no detriment” policy, guaranteeing that exams taken during Covid-19 will not lower a student’s overall grade – whereas others have focused on loosening evidence requirements for deadline extensions and extenuating circumstances applications.

Amending policies and procedures can be an uphill battle – and so it’s heartening to see universities make the kind of changes that, under ordinary circumstances, would seem quite drastic.

Regulations (and their application) matter. Whilst many students sail through their degree without so much as a glance at their university’s policies, an institution’s academic regulations can hold a great deal of power over someone’s education.

A prime example is the extenuating circumstances process. Understandably, students are asked to provide evidence to back up claims of external factors impacting their performance, however this is often difficult (and distressing) to obtain.

We know it can take time for people to access support for mental health struggles yet we expect students to obtain documentation in time for an Exam Board meeting. We know it is notoriously difficult to evidence sexual violence, yet not all regulations account for this. And we know that GP appointments can be hard to come by, yet some institutions require a doctor’s note to show the impact of bereavement (which, as painful as it may be, is a normal human response that requires no immediate medical attention).

Universities have acknowledged the fact that Covid-19 makes evidence collection almost impossible; isn’t it time to extend this level of understanding to other scenarios?

Levelling up

The pandemic has given many of us a better grasp on how social inequalities can manifest within the higher education sector. From the first year who cannot afford a laptop needed to access their lectures, to the final year whose family home does not afford them a quiet space to sit their exams, this year’s cohort would be forgiven for questioning just how level their playing field can possibly be.

Covid-19 has been a challenge for everyone, although individual circumstances, structural inequalities and simple bad luck mean that some have fared much better than others. The virus has had particularly dangerous implications for those experiencing domestic abuse, struggling with mental health difficulties or who are clinically vulnerable due to existing health conditions.

Statistically speaking, many students will experience the aforementioned issues; for instance, almost one third of women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse at some point in their life and 34 percent of students will need professional intervention for mental health difficulties.

University staff are not social workers, nor can they replicate the treatment provided by our amazing NHS, however they do have a duty of care that means these matters cannot be ignored. Coronavirus has shown that the same situation can have hugely different impacts on different groups of people. This is nothing new – but I’m hopeful that the increased visibility of these challenges will generate more compassion and force universities to put the wellbeing of all groups of students at the centre of their planning.

“Business as usual” may seem like an attractive prospect but let’s not waste the work universities have already done. Coronavirus has resulted in tragedy on an unthinkable scale and has had catastrophic effects on the economy. It may seem naïve to focus on the positives but, despite a constant backdrop of anxiety, surely this is the most palatable option?

Just as the pandemic has facilitated unprecedented environmental progress, perhaps it will also be a catalyst for a more supportive, inclusive education. An education that allows students to access teaching remotely, provides a flexible pastoral offer and can respond to the reality of studying in today’s imperfect world.

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