Higher education makes a vital contribution to society and is integral to meeting all 17 of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. As the world reels from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, universities will be crucial to global economic and social recovery.
Yet universities everywhere have faced enormous disruption as a result of the pandemic, with those that can forced to move their activities online.
This rapid shift has particular significance in a Commonwealth context, where stark disparities in internet connectivity and infrastructure persist – and for ACU member universities, two thirds of which are in low and middle income countries. These divides, laid bare by COVID-19, are a major obstacle in the drive for inclusive and equitable access to higher education by 2030 – a target of Sustainable Development Goal 4.
The results of the ACU’s digital engagement survey, published today, highlight this stubborn digital divide and its impact on universities’ current capacity to deliver teaching and research. The findings show clear disparities in terms of internet access: for example, while 83% of respondents from high income countries had access to broadband, this figure was only 19% for respondents from low income countries. Despite being more likely to experience challenges when remote working – including data costs, internet speed, and internet reliability – colleagues in lower income countries were also less likely to receive institutional support through contributions to data costs and devices.
The survey results also point to further disparities at different levels within universities, and between students, academics, and professional staff – suggesting a ‘double digital divide’. Among respondents, senior leaders were most likely to have access to broadband (74%), followed by professional services (52%), academics (38%) and students (30%). And senior leaders and professional services staff were more likely than academics or students to report institutional contributions toward device or data costs.
More encouragingly, the findings suggest that the rapid switch online may have boosted perceptions of the quality of online teaching and learning, and looks set to lead to lasting change. Despite challenges including student accessibility and engagement, staff training and confidence, and connectivity costs, over 80% of respondents thought that the quality of online learning and teaching had improved during the past six months.
The expansion of online learning in response to the pandemic, and the huge challenges that came with it, present a window of opportunity – not only to use the lessons learned to build stronger, more resilient institutions, but also to widen access to higher education. However, the survey confirms that this potential will only be realised if governments and institutions take swift action to ensure no one is left behind in the shift online.
The ACU calls on governments and policymakers across the Commonwealth to help create the conditions for success by:
- Prioritising funding for higher education, in recognition of its vital contribution to society and to post-COVID recovery worldwide
- Investing in tackling the digital divide in higher education through funding, financing and public-private partnerships
- Widening access to higher education and lifelong learning by supporting digital transformation initiatives in universities
- Bringing university leaders, telecommunications companies, global employers, and students together to develop a common agenda for the future of digital higher education
- Providing a platform for institutions to share knowledge at different stages of their digital transformation journeys and to discuss common challenges