The big mobile firms shouldn’t forget university students

Gagandeep Kaur is MDXSU President


Khalid Abumaye is VP Science & Technology at MDXSU


Tahmina Choudhery is the VP Professional & Social Sciences at Middlesex University Students' Union


Nishtha Relan is VP Arts & Creative Industries at MDXSU

At Middlesex SU, we have written to Michelle Donelan, Vodafone, EE, BT and Three – and we think everyone else in the sector should too!

Following the announcement on Monday that the UK would be going back into lockdown, many of our students have been coming to terms with another period of learning in isolation – cut off from friends, family, lecturers and class mates.

It’s a situation that generates lots of issues – some of which are very complex and might take some time to unpick. When students demand “no detriment” policies, for example, that tells us that they are not confident about assessment. It’s crucial that universities work out whether students are justified in feeling that way and respond accordingly.

But there’s one issue that isn’t complicated at all – and it’s one that we think can be sorted by the start of next week.

No student should fall behind or become isolated due to a lack of data or broadband.

Learning the lessons

One of the things we learned from the first lockdown was that students who didn’t have good internet access found studying harder and had a much greater risk of experiencing loneliness. We can’t allow that to happen this time.

On Tuesday the Department for Education (DfE) announced it was partnering with Vodafone, BT, EE and Three to provide free data and unlimited internet to school children who are being forced to learn from home and are at risk of digital poverty.

So our ask is simple. The minister, Vodafone, EE, BT and Three should work together to make sure that this arrangement is extended to cover higher education students who face digital poverty.

University students are currently being hit a triple whammy – still needing to pay rent and fees, not being able to work part time and facing reduced access to hardship funds due to increased demand. Many students simply cannot afford the data and broadband which is now required in order to keep up with their studies.

Surveying the evidence

According to research by the Office for Students, across the UK in the first term almost one in five students had their ability to study affected by a lack of access to the internet – and over half said that a slow or unreliable connection had affected them. They are figures which are higher for disabled students, students who are the first in their family to attend university, student parents and students of colour. These are groups which are particularly well represented at Middlesex University, with 53% of our students having been eligible for free school meals – which is why this a particularly acute issue for us.

It is particularly worrying that this third lockdown will disproportionately affect students of colour. Research by UUK shows that they were already 13 percentage points less likely to receive a first or a two one before Covid-19, and are disproportionately likely to have either had Covid-19 or to have suffered a bereavement because of it.

Without action, these factors will further exacerbate pre-existing attainments gap between disadvantaged students and their advantaged counterparts. And whilst universities have done what they can to provide hardship funds and access to laptops and software, there is still a major gap between what is required and what is available.

As with schools, this is too big an issue for individual universities to fix on their own – and that’s why a national partnership is required.

Face value

We might ask why the tech firms would bother. Well let’s take their own words at face value. Lutz Schüler, Chief Executive Officer at Virgin Media, said of the schools plan:

We know how important it is for children to take part in online lessons and remote learning, and we’re pleased to be working with the Department for Education by offering free mobile data to Virgin Mobile customers who need it. This is the latest in a series of measures we have taken this year to support our customers during this challenging time.”

OK Lucy. But what have you done for university students who need to take part in online lessons and remote learning?

Elaine Carey, Chief Commercial Officer, at Three UK has said:

Education is crucial for everyone in society and it is vital no child misses out. Three UK wants to support those families that need access to connectivity to support their child’s learning needs during the pandemic.”

We agree Elaine. But if education is crucial for everyone in society, why only support disadvantaged children?

Marc Allera, Chief Executive of BT’s Consumer brands, said:

Connectivity is essential for children to keep up with learning at home during the pandemic, particularly while lockdowns and further restrictions have such an impact on the way we all live our lives. As a national champion, BT has a responsibility to help ensure no one is left behind while face-to-face teaching is on hold, which is why we have partnered with the Department for Education to give pupils from disadvantaged families the mobile data they need to stay connected.”

Well Marc. If national champions like BT have a responsibility to help ensure no one is left behind while face-to-face teaching is on hold, do bear in mind that it’s on hold in universities too.

And Nick Jeffery, CEO, Vodafone UK, has said:

We are absolutely committed to doing what we can to keep the UK connected during the pandemic, including helping children to continue their education in lockdown. We launched our schools.connected programme last year, providing 350,000 free data SIMs for teachers to offer to pupils that need them most. We are also delighted to be joining the Get Help with Technology programme.”

Well Nick – if you’re serious about that “absolute commitment” to do what you can to keep the UK connected, we think it’s vital that you help all of us to continue our education – not just children.

Time to take action

Many of the issues facing us such as fees and rent will require substantial amounts of funding to resolve, but closing the digital divide should be a much simpler issue to resolve.

The blueprint is there from schools, and the arguments for action are almost identical.

It just needs concerted pressure from the sector, some leadership from government and some creativity from tech giants.

Leave a Reply