Dave Sherwood, CEO and Founder at BibliU, explores the ways in which universities can improve student accessibility for those with a range of abilities and backgrounds
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly brought the inequalities of our society into sharper focus, particularly around health and education. The significance of the movements that took place this last year brought attention, on a global scale, to the ways in which our wider systems and actions perpetuate social inequality available to all.
For us in the wider education sector, this means assessing what strategies can be put into immediate effect to combat, in particular, the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. Technology will play an essential role in unlocking access to resources for all – let’s take a look at how this can be done.
Pricing out inclusivity
For students stepping into further education, the financial burden can be a heavy one. On top of rising tuition fees, students face extensive costs when accessing their required educational resources. With each module, seminar, and lecture demanding a wealth of information in order to keep on track, students are understandably struggling to foot the bill for expensive course materials.
With the average budget for books and equipment is priced between £450 and £1070, many students are living with an increasingly tight budget, even with a student job and overdraft. This financial pressure takes an even greater toll on people from disadvantaged backgrounds. When financial support isn’t offered to help provide physical textbooks, the disparities are set into motion, not to mention the stress that many can suffer if their grade is impacted.
The pandemic has only exacerbated this inequality in higher education. With universities and libraries abruptly shut down, students have had to make a full-time shift to online, and largely remote, working. Students who rely on libraries to borrow books are having their capacity to learn undermined and this must change to ensure equal access and opportunity.
A growing network of organisations are fighting to secure more effective financial support for under-represented groups through bursaries and scholarships to tackle the issue. Technology can prove the mother of opportunity in ensuring these efforts are long-lasting. For EdTech strategies to truly succeed, institutions must look to partner with these companies to ensure that all steps are actionable and future-proof.
When assessing the current overall picture of student accessibility and performance, a data-driven analytics approach will need to be adopted. Institutions must collectively work together to bring consistency to standards that will hold them accountable when meeting these issues. Digitisation will prove itself a key enabler in keeping universities engaged and on top of the demands that are required to fulfil their responsibility to getting in front of the problems at hand.
Consistency will also need to play a crucial part across institutions where collective standards work in tandem with digitisation to open up greater engagement towards tackling this issue.
The path to catering to all student needs
A key route to tackling inequalities related to online provision is partnering and connecting with organisations working towards improving student accessibility, so that institutions can work towards organisational improvement while co-creating solutions.
Students with disabilities are a key demographic who have faced many obstacles when pursuing higher education. New assistive technologies need to be more widely adopted and text-to-speech software for those with poor sight, as well as speed-readers for those with neurological disabilities.
This isn’t a one-person job; everyone in the system has to take an active role in their commitment to building a more progressive and equal environment. A big part of this effort will require the right type of infrastructure to more effectively respond in real-time to the needs of students. As we find ourselves on an optimistic path to recovery, we have a real chance to take decisive and collaborative action and create progress across the higher education sector.