One of the major issues facing all universities prior to Covid-19 was the scandalous BAME degree awarding gap, and it is likely to be an even bigger issue now.
There is a popular assertion that Covid-19 does not discriminate between individuals and we are all affected by it in one way or another. It is true that nobody is immune to catching the virus, but there is strong evidence of disproportionate impact in BAME communities. For instance a study by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre revealed that 35% of patients infected by the virus were non-white, which is nearly triple the 13% proportion in the UK population as a whole.
Against the background of a well-established evidence base of the existence of gaps in continuation and attainment for underrepresented groups of students (even when taking into account a student’s entry grades or qualifications) providers in England are mandated by the Office for Students to address equity issues by developing specific targets and action strategies. That duty – regulatory or moral – hasn’t gone away, and arguably intensifies in a crisis like this.
We know that rates of poverty amongst BAME communities are double that of white people. Given their socio-economic status, BAME students are more likely to be vulnerable to the economic fallout triggered by Covid-19 and, amongst other things, this may adversely impact their ability to engage with and complete coursework and assessment tasks.
Within the agreed interim arrangements, staff should be as flexible and sympathetic as possible to students financial concerns and contact with students should be done with the utmost sensitivity and a staff should show willingness to develop flexible and creative solutions to specific circumstances. Providers should offer clear and accessible and information of any facilities/schemes that are available for students in financial hardship and provide relevant and updated information to students accessible ways.
As well as additional support, the vast majority of students will also be in receipt of loans through the Student Loans Company (SLC) and may be uncertain about ongoing access to these funds, particularly where there has been a change to their circumstances. To help the SLC has produced a guide that answers key questions related to the outbreak.
The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in a discontinuous shift from campus based learning to wholly online delivery. Whilst one can reasonably assume all students will have access to mobile devices, there is still the issue of less well off students having access to suitable and reliable equipment and broadband facilitates.
And given the widespread closure of social spaces (cafes, libraries, community hubs) to access internet, one can safely assume that for less privileged students, the pre-existing structural digital divide is likely to have been compounded. Accordingly, it is incumbent on providers to offer a rapid and simple mechanism for students to access tablets and laptop computers.
Despite making up just 13% of the UK population, according to the latest report from the UK’s Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre over 34% of all patients critically ill with COVID-19 were from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
There are many reasons for this disparity, though key ones are increased vulnerability to the virus as a result higher levels of pre-existing health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. Coupled with this is poor and cramped housing conditions and higher likelihood of working in occupations, such as the care sector, transport and food retail and therefore an increased risk of infection. There is considerable research that student participation and academic performance is impacted by physical and mental health problems and for sure these problems will be amplified by the Covid-19 crisis.
Though staff can do little to remedy structural health inequalities, the key thing is to be as supportive and sensitive to difficulties a student may experience, which may or may not be disclosed. We need to be aware that some students may well be managing a range of health conditions, which may impact at any one moment their capacity to engage in learning and assessment.
BAME students are also more likely to have closer ties with extended family networks and may feel more emotionally attached to illness and bereavement within their kinship networks. It is important to understand the cultural context in and one should avoid labelling or applying deficit explanations for the higher likelihood that BAME students will be impacted directly or indirectly by the virus.
There is a large body of evidence confirming that BAME students face a variety of conscious and unconscious discriminatory practices in traditional classrooms. For instance, BAME students’ behaviour is more likely to be rated harshly compared to similar behaviour of white students, staff tend to express more positive and neutral speech toward white students than toward BAME students.
And in terms of assessment, BAME students are consistently given lower marks and less favourable feedback than their white counterparts. Though this is an under researched area, evidence suggests these biases are/can be replicated online.
We need to assume we not only have the capacity to be biased, but despite our intellectual capabilities, we do practice unconscious bias. So the trick is to try to design this out and one of the benefits of online learning spaces is that we can step back and really develop, design, implement, and evaluate strategies for promoting equitable learning environments.
Some of this will be time consuming, but we can for instance, collect real- time data/feedback, which if done sensitively, can empower students too. A good way to enable this is to create anonymous discussion forums. Moreover, given the total reliance on digital resources, it is doubly important that the selection of content, both audio visual and text based, does not perpetuate colonial representations of BAME people by denying them agency, rendering them as victims, belonging to dysfunctional outdated cultures or simple erasure.
The key to creating inclusive learning environments is to reduce student anxiety and, for non-traditional students, the effects of an “imposter syndrome” or a feeling of less worth, being an outsider and harbouring doubts about one’s ability.
Creating a culture of belonging takes place at various levels, but in terms of online delivery of learning a few practical things one can do is: Use of non-threatening ice-breaker activities; encouraging all students to share thoughts in a non-judgemental way; establish some ground rules and involve students in establishing these; avoid and confront micro-aggressions and practice and promote micro-affirmations in online interactions; careful use of terminology, such as awareness of colloquial language, academic jargon and cultural context of metaphors; capture lectures rather than rely on powerpoint slides and/or notes.
Medium and long term
Though it is premature to be able to make a true assessment of the true impact of the crisis, we know enough from a range of existing and new data sources that historically marginalised sections of the population, including those from a BAME background, are likely to experience higher levels of disadvantage.
Many of the issues relating to addressing disparities in BAME retention, such as unconscious bias, sense of alienation from the institution, structural disadvantage and managing to balance home, work and university pressures, will not change because of the virus, but perhaps will be brought into much sharper focus over the weeks and months to come.
It means that we will require high levels of emotional intelligence, creative thinking, flexibility, tolerance and empathy. Students make substantial emotional and financial investments in their education and the inevitable uncertainty generated by the Covid-19 coupled is likely to make students feel vulnerable and insecure.
It is therefore even more incumbent on providers to work twice as hard at humanising every single encounter we have with students, whether that is in an online discussion forum, or answering emails and telephone calls.