Student futures in a divided society

Will time run out for students looking to the technology of the future for equality?

Submissions to the recently launched University Partnerships Programme  UPP FoundationStudents Futures Commission’ closed today and they promise a fresh look at what the future of university holds for students in a post-pandemic world (see TEFS 1st June 2021 ‘Student futures are under scrutiny as reality bites’). The restrictions of the pandemic revealed the stark divisions between those with advantages and those with fewer advantages. The hope has to be for a renewed effort to make higher education an equal experience for all. Future technology should not block the path ahead. The TEFS response concentrated on time as a key resource to be levelled up. This can be addressed by looking at resources available but using time available as the benchmark for equality. Time is the one resource that runs out for everyone and how it is used determines the outcome.

The opening scenes of Fritz Lang’s epic film ‘Metropolis’ from 1927 come to mind when thinking of the future. The scene of workers coming and going from their work underground, hidden from the sight of the privileged above ground, is as chilling as it is prophetic. It depicts the iniquity of a divided society where disadvantage is punished with labour and servitude to the ‘elite’.  This metaphor must not be allowed into reality in any form as we approach a pivotal time in deciding the future of education we want and need.   There should be no room for those with advantages pushing their way to the front of the queue using better access to time and resources as the only discriminator. Citing better attainment in an unequal competition is not really a sound excuse. Instead, ability and equal access to time and resources should dominate in determining progress and success. But we are a long way from that ideal.

Financial realities.

To kick off the debate, the Commission published an excellent analysis of the financial realities of student life by Vivi Friedgut, CEO of Blackbullion, who advise on student financial wellbeing.  The report on the 30th June 2021 ‘Supporting students financially in the post-Covid world’ is a synopsis of a survey of 1000 students earlier in 2021 and reported in ‘Students’ thoughts on financial support from universities and colleges’. The survey confirms that “Just under a third had taken on paid work” and “A fifth had received additional funding from their university”. 

Most students needed family to back them up financially to continue this year but it still left a shortfall in funds and many worries.  The conclusion that “Part of these worries include losing their jobs, as students often work in the heavily affected sectors of hospitality and retail, while many are also feeling the effects of increased strain on the finances of parent(s) and guardian(s)” is a real thing.

The two-tier system in higher education is driven by time.

TEFS responded to the Student Futures Commission with an overview of one of the root causes of university education in the UK becoming a two tier experience. The submission can be accessed here ‘RESPONSE to Student Futures Commission call for evidence. July 2021: Financial and time constraints on students’ (TEFS 5th July 2021).  The main argument is that resources, and time to study for students, is highly variable in the system. While over 60% of students do not have part-time jobs during the term, many of the rest work considerable hours. This is compounded by commuting and caring responsibilities that all add up to less time to study. This is why the metaphor of workers by Lang in ‘Metropolis’ springs to mind. While many students enjoy time to study and socialise in the light, others are unseen and working long hours. The disadvantages exerted by less time to study should not be dismissed as inevitable. Time is the most precious resource when completing high level assignments. It is simply the case that some students are pushed to the limit when meeting the demands put upon them. If a student has half the time to complete an assignment, when competing ‘equally’ with a peer with twice the time, it means becoming twice as efficient.  This is not realistic when fatigue enters the equation.

TEFS has called on universities to gather more information about the working hours of their students. At present this is a major blind spot in understanding the pressures on them. (The Guardian June 16 2020 ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’ ).

Also, to ensure that “Every student has the same access to time and resources to carry out their studies regardless of background”.  This is not impossible and should be a realistic aim from 2021 onwards.

TEFS has highlighted previously this anomaly that brings about an unfair ‘two-tier’ system in several articles.

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