If it all goes online, who might we leave behind?

Covid-19 has changed everything in the world of higher education. Since lockdown was imposed, I’ve been spending a lot of time problem solving with students’ unions, with a big focus on keeping student opportunities going.

2 years ago, my partner Jamie went back to university as a mature student, and he’s now starting his final year studying philosophy. He’s part of the Philosophy society and involved in a new book club. He’s doing well, getting 1st and 2:1s – but even he struggled to find the motivation on Sunday evening to attend their virtual book club.

That’s because it’s not “essential” – it’s “extra”, and on top of the other reading he has to do. We have two children here, and it meant he had to miss eating dinner with us. It’s a sacrifice and a compromise either way. Sacrifice your study and academic development, or your precious family time.

Understanding the divide

In the popular imagination, the “digital divide” is often assumed to be about access to a PC. But there’s more to it – it’s also about good, reliable internet, a quiet space to be, and the space in your life to make room for your study and the opportunities that you’d like to try.

Students sign up to a university and expect to have teaching time, so universities have prioritised space for this. But wider opportunities are seen as an optional, “nice to have” – and so have fallen down the list.

One of the big problems that we talk about generally at Organised Fun HQ is how opportunities, and the supporting infrastructure that enables them, are often the first to be cut or too easy to dismiss by universities looking to make a saving. We’re not good enough at telling the story of the impact that getting involved in opportunities has.

The voluntary and social action world talks about the double benefit of social action. Opportunities are beneficial to the person doing them, and to wider society, the university community, the world.

We know that opportunities improve student retention and attainment – students are more likely to stay at university and more likely to achieve better results if they are involved. We also know that opportunities improve students’ mental health, reduce loneliness and are great for example giving on CVs and on applications.

There are hundreds of stories of students who started out tentatively joining a society or club in first year, got stuck in and went on to lead that group, or develop something new, or “just” come out of it a more confident, happy person.

And of course, opportunities are many students’ entry point into their SU. Without them, we will lose overall engagement.

Opportunities are a powerful changemaker but the fun, nice and more light-hearted view of opportunities means that often they are just seen as a nice optional add-on, rather than an essential component of the student experience.

Just do it online

In the early days of lockdown, there was considerable student sympathy for badly delivered Zoom tutorials, shaky camerawork in seminars and cancelled classes. Similarly, when SUs were reacting to a changing situation daily, there was a lot of forgiveness for another Zoom quiz or a badly-planned society social.

For students both starting and coming back in September, there will almost certainly be less forgiveness – both on the academic side and on the wider student opportunities side. If a society social online is dull and unengaging, potential members won’t come back.

Students’ unions are already facing lots of their groups saying “what’s the point”, as they come to realise that they can’t run the activities that they usually would or even socialise in the usual way. This is particularly true of Sport – it’s taking a heck of a lot of creativity from student opportunities staff and officers to support lots of their groups with planning for freshers – even more than in previous years.

Who will we lose?

These impacts will hit students who arguably need opportunities most, hardest – the ones that struggle to find the quiet, uninterrupted space for teaching, let alone getting involved with opportunities. Is the danger that only the most privileged students take part as they are the ones with high speed internet, the right space to do online activity and enough free time to be able to justify doing it?

This was already the case before the pandemic, but there had been steps forward in increasing diversity of leaders in opportunities, in training groups to make their events inclusive, and in promoting opportunities in different ways.

But if we’re honest, we’re not starting from a place where opportunities are led by a diverse range of students. Typically they’re the students with plenty of free time, students who aren’t first in the family to go to uni, white students, students who already have some social capital, students who are more comfortable being leaders.

What would be amazing would be if a new way of doing opportunities – online, blended, and socially distant – was focused on those students who don’t engage. The “hard to reach”.

Not new, but much more complicated

As well as directly organised events and social activity, students’ unions (and sometimes universities) have a sophisticated infrastructure that supports around 25,000 registered student groups across the UK. That infrastructure trains leaders, ensures safety, addresses diversity and delivers funding. And it supports those groups to deliver opportunities in the first term that boost wellbeing and social capital.

That infrastructure has taken a battering. Many SU staff were placed on furlough as commercial revenues collapsed. Others depend on space or university support that has been prioritised on formal teaching. Some universities are breathing a sigh of relief over their finances as they look at admissions figures, forgetting that their SU still will find it tough to generate commercial revenue from trading to keep going.

Normally by September 1st teams are ready to launch welcome programmes, but talking to students’ unions reveals they are way behind with the usual planning and preparations for Welcome 2020, the big curtain raising moment of the academic year. They are working really hard and getting things ready, but there’s still a myriad of questions about what is and isn’t allowed when term kicks off.

What’s causing the delay? For those that organise opportunities the problems are not new – they’re largely the same, just made more complicated and intense:

  • Access to space has become much more difficult as universities prioritise teaching.
  • Risk management has become much more complicated and in some cases difficult to navigate and understand, let alone delegate effectively or agree approaches with the university.
  • Engaging “hard to reach” students (maybe if we call them something else we will make them easier to reach?) has become more difficult.
  • Preparing hundreds of students to promote (membership of or events run by) their groups and activities in an engaging way is really tough without the signature flagship events like Fairs.

Having to do things digitally has caused us to innovate at pace, delivering things online that we thought wouldn’t happen for another 5 years at least.

But when we started this rapid digital innovation in higher education we were focused on recreating formats. Now, we need to turn our attention to recreating the relationships that students need and want, rather than just carbon copying the format but online.

As such, addressing the digital divide isn’t just about having the right tech or ensuring that “teaching” can happen. It’s about student opportunities being prioritised by the whole university community – for the sake of students’ mental health, future careers, attainment and retention. And it’s about making sure that our focus for the next academic year is on students like Jamie. We really can’t afford for them to continue missing out.

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