UK risks creating a "lost generation" without digital support for uni students

Education secretary Gavin Williamson is under pressure to resign for "shambolic" record throughout the pandemic

The education secretary Gavin Williamson

Thousands of university students in the UK need urgent support from the government to study remotely, according to a group of higher education bodies. 

The Jisc, Universities UK, GuildHE and Ucisa have written to the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, urging him to help disadvantaged students or risk creating a "lost generation".

Many families are at risk of slipping into poverty and can not afford the data costs required for online study, the bodies have warned, with around half of higher education students said to be digitally disadvantaged. What's more, the demand for hardship funding from universities has doubled as a result of the third lockdown.

The issue of digital access for poorer families has been highlighted by MPs from both of the UK's main parties and a number of governing bodies and charities. While the government has made efforts to provide primary and secondary school children with data and devices, there has been little progress for adults.

This was recently highlighted by The Good Things Foundation's CEO, Helen Milner, who said that the government hadn't "invested a single pound" to adults below the digital divide. The higher education bodies have now said the same for university students.

"While we welcome the government's action to support college learners through the Get Help With Technology scheme, there has been little or nothing to support higher education students in the same way," the letter states. "Not only is this unfair, but it causes learners distress, harms their wellbeing and creates inequalities, in particular for disadvantaged students.

"It is critical that the 1.8 million university students who are having to learn remotely have equal access to data and devices. In universities, many students cannot access their education due to the cost of data, living in shared accommodation (whether at home or in halls), or in rural areas where connectivity is weak."

The education secretary has come under heavy criticism for his handling of the digital divide at seemingly every level of education. As a result, the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, has called on Williamson to resign.

"Gavin Williamson's record throughout this pandemic has been shambolic. He has bounced from one crisis to another without learning from his mistakes or listening to the parents, pupils and hard-working education staff who have been left to deal with the fallout," she said. 

"We cannot leave children's futures in the hands of a Minister who will not fight for these basic rights. It is time for Gavin Williamson to go."

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