By Kasper Hassett

Although UK universities boast that their online teaching provision is adequate to the current crisis, deep-rooted inequalities in the class system cause the poorest students to suffer the most. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, working-class students are faced with more challenges than usual, and are also less able to access online teaching than their middle- and upper-class peers. Despite their disproportionate struggle to engage with remote teaching, universities are refusing to show leniency with deferrals and adjustments, feigning blindness to a violently unjust class system. The response of universities to this pandemic is insufficient at best, and places those students facing hardship at an even further disadvantage.

Coronavirus has impacted working-class households the most, piling on stress for poorer students and draining their emotional energy. Many are dealing with additional financial hardship due to family members being furloughed or made redundant, and some students are having to focus on fulfilling basic survival needs, having moved away from crucial jobs in their university towns which were supplementing their loans. This stress is not easy to balance with the work universities demand from students, which assumes that life goes on as normal regardless of social class and background. Students of colour, too, have cause to be troubled by current events, with their demographics being largely over-represented in deaths from coronavirus, as well as being more likely to be working-class. The poorest and most disadvantaged students are most likely to have loved ones who are key workers, and the worry that family and friends could be at risk tends to overrule the drive to submit work and engage with online learning. They are also often less able to socially distance from these relatives than their wealthier peers due to a lack of physical space and related resources.

many will be forced to accept online teaching, however inadequate or inaccessible

Working from home, too, presents extra obstacles for working-class students. Online learning relies on having a stable internet connection, a suitable computer, and access to resources normally provided by universities. Printing at home, for example, is a luxury to which many do not have access. Working-class households are also more likely to be overcrowded, meaning that students from poorer backgrounds may lack the privacy needed to attend remote video classes, or may feel embarrassed to participate due to background noise and visibly poor living conditions. Universities are, after all, disproportionately populated by middle- and upper-class students, and those who do not fit this category may feel shame about their background and wish to hide it.

As universities expect financial losses due to international students not taking up places, they are growing more desperate to force current students into staying. There are already reports of students being told that the COVID-19 crisis is not a valid reason to defer their courses or take a year out, and other institutions are expected to make similarly harsh decisions. For wealthier students, even if they are denied deferrals, they have the financial stability needed to restart a degree in the future. For working-class students, however, there is a limit on how many years they can take loans from Student Finance. In addition, taking a year out may be impossible for the students whose families cannot support them in the interim, so many will be forced to accept online teaching, however inadequate or inaccessible.

These students, who will have to make do with whatever provision is available in September, will miss out on many of the social and extra-curricular experiences offered by university. Societies are unlikely to start running events at the start of the semester, and social opportunities will be limited. Societies allow for networking, and involvement in them can be the building blocks of an impressive CV. This is essential for survival under capitalism, and for the poorest students, university life is the only chance they get to partake in the cronyism which wealthier young people can take for granted. Universities also host events that directly provide employment opportunities and boost employability, such as careers fairs, talks with industry professionals, guest lectures and various workshops. All of these are unlikely to be held fully accessibly while COVID-19 is still a threat. Without these chances to develop skills, working-class students are at greater risk of graduating into a cycle of precarious work and instability.

The social environment of campus universities like UEA will be significantly different in the new academic year. Credit: N Chadwick.

Of course, moulding students into efficient workers should not be the sole focus of higher education. The lack of social opportunities on offer will also deny the poorest students the chance to experience the escapism which university promises. Often, moving to university marks an opportunity to separate an individual’s identity from that of their family, and to be seen as an adult in their own right for the first time. But, with the additional financial hardship presented by coronavirus, some of the poorest students will choose to save money by living with family and commuting to university, alienating themselves from the novel social experiences so fondly reminisced upon by many alumni. These factors could contribute to a devastating decline in mental health for those already struggling.

The claim that online teaching can deliver the same quality of education as in-person classes for anyone is a stretch at best. But to ignore the unique challenges faced by working-class students in this new educational environment is more than just a questionable PR decision – it is a prime example of the rampant classism which deters the demographic from approaching higher education. It is too dismissive to claim that attending university is an equaliser for students of all socio-economic backgrounds: on becoming students, there are even more obstacles to face should the poor hope to graduate with the same opportunities as their wealthier peers. The treatment of financially disadvantaged students in the midst of a global pandemic is a telling sign of how universities have become focused on profit over education in the wake of militant marketisation.

Featured image credit: Bluefield Photos

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