Business as usual. A term we are unlikely to hear for a long time in higher education.
It has taken a worldwide pandemic and a violent reminder of racism for the sector, and the world, to question if our “normal” was good enough. It wasn’t and it isn’t. But with disruption comes a chance for positive change, if we are willing to take it.
These unusual times – to borrow the term from many recent email greetings – provide the opportunity to shape things for the better in higher education, particularly for those students who fall into widening participation backgrounds. Universities are facing heavy criticism as they unleash plans for virtual learning, but more often than not such criticism comes from a particular viewpoint.
Inferior is complex
As universities across the country announce plans to heed the effects of Covid-19, many turning to blended learning, conversation has centred around an assumption that students will get an inferior university experience.
There has rightly been conversation centring how non-traditional students will cope in this new normal as they are more likely to lack the material resources needed to engage well. That could be due to the rapid collapse of the student economy with temporary, casual and part time jobs disintegrating meaning more anxiety about paying rent or bills.
Issues may also arise if students decide to stay on in the family home (already a core consideration for many BAME communities) that may be unsuitable for quiet study or having an unreliable internet connection. These issues are real and the government must go beyond simply delaying the problem by bringing forward student finance payments.
On the other hand, as long as blended learning is put in place effectively, there are lots of positives to gain. This is particularly so for the next generation of learners. Many students that will be affected are often more comfortable with tech than they are physical interactions. Some students may feel more at ease developing their points of view and putting forth arguments with the space and relative anonymity that online discussions allow, as opposed to physical seminars where the confident few may dominate discussion.
A move to blended learning may also make higher education more attractive for disabled students who may find it difficult to physically get to buildings on campus, or commuter and mature students who typically benefit from further flexibility that online learning offers. These are the very groups of students that universities have made promises to recruit through their access and participation plans.
This preoccupation with the physical, traditional experience may be a result of commentators idealising their own experiences that came with far less of an opportunity cost. A time with minimal or no tuition fees and available maintenance grants to treat the student experience as a rite of passage whether or not there was benefit to it. It would be wrong to project these experiences on to the next generation for whose context is very different.
The whole and nothing but
But will students get the whole university experience online? An experience that not only includes getting a quality education but also meeting diverse groups of people, learning new hobbies and joining societies and sports clubs. Some have suggested that disadvantaged students may lose out more in this sense due to less interactions with children of the elite.
Growing up, I had many of the characteristics we as widening participation practitioners look for in participants in our outreach programmes. I am British-Bangladeshi, the first in my family to attend university and had been on free school meals to name a few.
I loved my university experience and I love my job – but I do not attribute my success to mixing with “posh” friends teaching me the ways of the world. To do so suggests that worthy aspiration can only come from the middle and upper classes and is a remnant of the deficit language we as a sector have fought so hard to lose.
If we believe a successful student experience, and perhaps more importantly graduate outcome, depends upon mixing with the “posh” we should be outraged. Higher education should be about breaking down such barriers and it should not be assumed that because students may not have barristers or doctors in their family or social circles that they could never aspire to these high status professions. There have been countless studies disproving this, yet the mainstream rhetoric generally remains unchanged.
Of course the close interaction between individuals from different walks of life prescribes numerous educational and social benefits. These include, but are not limited to, confidence, educational progression, civic engagement and commitment to racial equity. But we would do well to remember that this is not a one way street.
We must also remember that blended learning is not the same as a 100 per cent digital experience. Most universities have committed to some face-to-face learning and many are considering accommodation bubbles whereby students will not have to social distance with that particular group.
When it comes to the virtual social side of things we could learn from the numerous outreach projects that have gone online in a short space of time. This includes assigning mentors to smaller groups of new students with regular check-ins, working with student-run societies to bring live sessions to students’ screens and organising care packages for those that would have received free meals during their time with us. Lots of these activities and arrangements have the potential to work for current students as well.
Our new normal shows that higher education institutions are able to rapidly change with the times if pressed. This is shown by how, almost over night, over 7000 staff were able to work from home at my institution. Or how quickly teaching was able to move online, though this is not to understate the work put into achieving this.
When push comes to shove innovation can happen quickly – so why have we not yet seen the same urgency when it comes to making good on promises of decolonising the curriculum across the sector? Today’s situation has shown us that change can happen when institutions, and more importantly those who run them, want it to.
I am quietly optimistic that the tide is changing. Universities can no longer ignore racial inequities seen in the lived experiences of students and staff as well as the outcomes of their graduates and they have now proven that fast change is achievable. We can’t allow them to backtrack on this once the news cycle has moved on. We must demand action now.