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COVID-19 could make universities more inclusive

Written by News

The Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion at Aston University, Hannah Bartlett, authored an article earlier this week suggesting that the shift by universities to online learning may make the sector more inclusive. 

In her article on the higher education policy discussion platform Wonkhe, Bartlett argues that the new focus on digital platforms and online learning has a positive impact on staff morale as well as being more inclusive for students with disabilities, caring responsibilities, and those experiencing significantly challenging personal circumstances. 

The UK is currently experiencing an unprecedented shut-down of educational institutions as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Whilst online resources have been utilised in universities before – recapturing lectures, sharing learning materials, and online submissions – academics and students are quickly having to adjust themselves to working solely from home. This involves using video conferencing software such as Zoom and Skype, as well as platforms like Teams, to keep in touch and hold seminars. 

Bartlett mentions how this shift to online learning means we are testing new mediums for teaching and assessing content, such as having remote exams. Whilst this may not go right the first time, the chance to troubleshoot online learning is an opportunity we may not have reached otherwise. The shift to online learning and assessment may become semi-permanent, if it’s shown to be successful. This could potentially ease pressure on those who need or would prefer to work from home if their lifestyles aren’t compatible with the routine of 9-5 on-campus learning. 

These changes will not come without addressing significant issues, such as the fact that not every household has access to a stable internet connection, and students may not have access to a computer or laptop.

As of 2019, 7% of UK households still had no broadband access

During the current situation, this severely damages students chances at succeeding in their exams. However, Bartlett’s article suggests that in the future, the element of choice (as to engage virtually or in person) would make universities much more inclusive. 

It might also allow universities to reconsider their leadership structures. As Bartlett states, “being more flexible may well make it easier for people with both seen and unseen disabilities to engage in a wider range of activities, providing the opportunity for progression and development. […] Covid-19 may help us to move on from the perceived need for senior staff to be present or available around the clock for dinners, keynotes, and meetings. This is a perceived need that plays firmly into structural bias against career progression for anyone who has any kind of responsibility outside of the workplace.”

“This isn’t just about parents with young children; it is about anyone who has responsibility for any other person”

Hannah Bartlett, Associate PVC for Diversity and Inclusion at Aston University

The Covid-19 situation has forced universities to operate in radically different ways. Going forward, this may lead to online learning offering a more inclusive environment to those previously disadvantaged by their other responsibilities outside of universities, as well as encouraging universities to scrutinise their leadership structures and make way for positive changes. 

Last modified: 20th April 2020

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