Illustration about inequality online as a result of COVID19

University in 2020: How COVID-19 Has Unequally Transformed the University Experience

In 2020, the university experience was not just very inconsistent for different people, but vastly unequal, say Amanda Joy  and Jasmine Serena

As part of Restless Development’s Build Back Better programme, we conducted research through surveys and interviews with 43 students in the UK. Here’s what we found. 

The escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 saw the world as we knew it grind to a halt. Streets emptied. Shops closed. Working from home became the new normal. For university students, education was a very different experience. Whilst some academic institutions stopped semesters, others turned to online teaching. Although this increased performance for some students, the majority felt that this has been an overwhelmingly negative experience, with many describing it as daunting and stressful. They felt at a disadvantage and as though they were progressing slower than previous year groups. 

Barriers to learning

Moving lessons online meant some students faced problems even accessing their education. Library and study spaces became limited and therefore competitive, preventing the use of resources needed to complete necessary degree requirements. 

‘Digital Poverty’ is the idea that people may be excluded from society because of a lack of access to technology, including laptops, computers, and reliable internet access. According to the Office for Students (OfS), 18% of students had insufficient access to technology and 71% of students did not have adequate workspaces, which impacted some students’ physical and mental health. 

Before the pandemic, students could freely use their university’s computers and quiet workspaces to complete assignments and access weekly readings. With this option no longer available, some students were at a significant disadvantage. They were unable to attend all their classes or could not record required presentations, resulting in lower grades. At many universities, accessing IT support became more difficult. This meant that resolving computer issues was stressful and hindered those for whom replacing broken technology was financially unviable. 

The images used in this article were produced for the Build Back Better zine.

The Bare Minimum

Universities market their teaching as ‘first-class’ and ‘world-class’, but right now they are failing to meet these expectations. Despite praise for some tutors’ efforts and their improved communication, a majority of those students able to access their courses online, felt that they were not receiving teaching of sufficient quality. For most they had to make do with pre-recorded lectures, which were often not uploaded on time. Group work and seminars were either disengaging or replaced with scarcely used ‘discussion threads’, leading many to question the value for money they were receiving. Other students missed out on peer contact and found it hard to get hold of tutors for feedback, as 1-1 office hours were curtailed. Some changed their dissertations entirely or could not access effective practical lessons, placements, and study abroad opportunities.

Universities implemented a variety of ‘no detriment’ policies, as a crisis response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These policies included extensions, the ability to self-justify inadequate resources or workspaces, lenient marking, and the cancellation of lowest credits. This was intended to minimise unequal student experiences and recognise the difficulty of study and assessment in the midst of the pandemic. However nationwide differences in the implementation of ‘no detriment’ policies were counterproductive to this aim. 

Even within universities there were differences in assessment format and grading between courses. Faculties applied different ‘no detriment’ policies, and one tutor’s perception of lenient marking may have varied from another’s. Of course, this is where external moderation comes in. A Bachelor’s degree, in the UK, is supposedly a standardised qualification. Yet, the lack of a regulated ‘no detriment’ policy raises concerns about how equitable a Bachelor’s degree is. A student’s entire classification may have changed if their university had different ‘no detriment’ policies. The result of three years of hard work and dedication should not be determined by where students studied. 

We have to do better

The 2020 university experience was often isolating, demotivating, and overwhelming. Online university has the potential to empower students, with more creativity in teaching and greater flexibility through pre-recorded lectures. However, for most this was not the case. We need a new approach in education, where universities and the government ensure that these potential benefits are realised for all students and inequalities are minimised. 

Universities, with government support, must dismantle the barriers to accessible education, so that all students can fulfil their right to learn. This includes investment in affordable and reliable internet, as well as the provision of equipment, loans, and workspaces to those who need them. Furthermore, all essential resources should be made accessible for free online. Universities should invest in online teaching to reach their advertised educational standards. Resource and training support must be provided to upskill tutors, as well as ensuring content is uploaded on-time. Group work, interactive seminars, greater 1-1 support, and Q&A opportunities are also needed. To ensure standards are maintained nationwide, educational providers need to be given more guidance and a specific model to follow, to reduce the differences in assessments and quality of experience.

University and education more generally, is meant to liberate people from societal inequalities, to empower people. In 2020 they have provided at times, overwhelmingly unequal and disempowering experiences. In 2021 we must make sure they live up to their promise. 

This is part 1 of a 2 part series on the UK university experience during COVID19: Read part 2 “Isolation and Burnout” now.

Help for Students and How to Take Action:

The Mix has an article with advice on how to study during the pandemic


If you are a UK resident you can take action by signing these petitions.

Power your creative ideas with pixel-perfect design and cutting-edge technology. Create your beautiful website with Zeen now.

University in 2020: How COVID-19 Has Unequally Transformed the University Experience

by Jasmine Serena Reading time: 4 min