Skip to content
All posts

Make Higher Education Online Learning Free or Risk Losing Disadvantaged Students, say Sector Leaders

As students struggle with the unforeseen costs, chief executives of education and technology bodies call for tariff-free access to educational websites during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Access to the internet requires data, costing money disadvantaged learners can ill-afford.

The chief executives of four leading education and technology bodies are therefore calling on government and telecoms providers to work collaboratively to ensure data-free access to educational websites during college and university closures.

The need is clear. One undergraduate wrote to their university, saying: ‘Now that the government has declared a lockdown, I find myself without internet access. I cannot access lectures, attend online seminars, or do any reading.

‘I am using data on my phone, but I do not have much and cannot afford to add any more. I have already applied for hardship this year so cannot do so again. I face physical and mental health issues as well as struggling for money and I fear that I will have to drop out of uni because I cannot get my assignments done without internet access.’  

Another student has access to wifi from his parents’ home - but he still has problems. “Things run really slowly and if the connection drops, I can lose work,” says the 22-year-old Strathclyde University undergraduate. “I recently had to leave software running overnight. In that time, the internet failed so the simulation stopped and I didn’t get any results. I therefore wasn’t able to submit that work by the deadline. If I’d been using mobile data, I wouldn’t have had that problem because I would’ve had a constant signal – but that would use a lot of data, which would cost a lot of money.”

Highlighting this issue, the chief executives of Jisc, Universities UK (UUK), the Association of Colleges (AoC) and ucisa have written to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden MP, and to Ofcom, offering to work with them and telecoms providers to ensure higher education (HE) and further education (FE) students get free access to educational websites through this crisis by removing data tariffs on identified sites. Similar initiatives have already been introduced in Japan, South Africa and the Republic of Ireland, where ‘access to healthcare and educational resource websites identified by the Government will be zero-rated for all customers where technically feasible’.

As things stand, ‘pay-as-you-go’ users in the UK incur costs every time they access a site, and the many UK students with contract ‘bundles’ pay for use in excess of their data limit. The CEOs estimate the average bundle’s data cap at between one and 10Gb per month. Using an online data calculator and equating particular services with educational services, they estimate the data a student needs to use their Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and access basic educational content (for example, to download a Powerpoint presentation or an eBook) at in excess of 12Gb per month. If the student were to participate in streamed video lectures (eg, through lecture capture) and participate in online video conferencing (through Zoom or Teams), their data usage would increase to a costly 30 to 50Gb per month.

Considering that AoC figures show 16 percent of 16 to 18-year-old learners are entitled to free school meals, and  HESA data for 2018/19  shows that 18 percent of the HE student population England are in the lowest quintile on the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), meeting these unforeseen expenses is challenging.

In the CEOs’ joint letter, Dr Paul Feldman of Jisc, David Hughes of the AoC, UUK’s Alistair Jarvis and Deborah Green from UCISA, wrote: 

‘Thousands of students are now learning online at home, where both broadband and access to mobile devices is prohibited by availability, connectivity and cost. The FE and HE sectors have worked very hard to successfully ensure the continual provision of teaching and learning online but, put simply, this is unaffordable and inaccessible for many learners. Not only does this prohibit their education, but it is damaging for their overall wellbeing.’

Further, Jisc’s Dr Paul Feldman says: “We know that, for many learners, broadband is a problem, either due to low bandwidth or because they’re sharing bandwidth with other members of the family, so mobile data is their preferred solution. A number of disadvantaged students don’t have a landline, making mobile the only solution. Giving tariff-free access to educational resources during this national crisis will help ensure no one falls behind, while also delivering on the government’s edtech strategy, which seeks to remove barriers to education and improve educational outcomes using technology.” 

UUK’s Alistair Jarvis comments: “During this time of uncertainty, it is imperative that students are still able to access the teaching and learning websites they need to continue with their studies. Any remaining barriers - in particular for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are relying on their own broadband or mobile data - must be eased, by allowing them to access the vital resources they need without charge. This will improve outcomes and be beneficial for wellbeing.”

And usica’s Deborah Green says: “University and college IT directors and their teams have moved swiftly to ensure that the systems and tools are in place to enable their students to continue their studies as seamlessly as possible at this extraordinary time. Whitelisting educational sites, in the way we have jointly requested, will remove remaining barriers for students who are having to rely on broadband or on mobile data.”

This release was originally produced by JISC