The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic lockdown has exposed inequalities in our societies. As we reflect on how to move forward, it is crucial to acknowledge that the lockdown has disadvantaged BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) students more as they learn how to survive remote learning. The Department for Education in 2018 reported that the rate of students who do not continue with their studies in Higher Education are higher among BAME students as opposed to the students from white backgrounds. Hence the current circumstances will disadvantage these students even further.
It’s been over a month since I started working from home due to this unprecedented lockdown. When the University gave directives for everyone to begin remote teaching, there was concern among staff and students. Within hours after the lockdown directives, there were lots of emails floating around on how to do remote teaching, and students were asking around how to survive it all.
To cut the story short, staff had to learn within days how to use zoom, blackboard collaborate among other technologies. I recall my first session on blackboard collaborate where I could see students, but could not hear them. Some students could see me, but could not hear me. At that point, I had to learn quickly to speak and type at the same time to get all my students learning. After my first session, I felt inadequate and disappointed with my limited skills. Still, I soldiered on, and now I am much confident.
But then again, for remote teaching and learning to work effectively, preparedness, competence, and personal choice are crucial. However, in this instance, there was a limited time for staff and students to communicate their perspectives or to get enough training to make informed choices. As a result, most students have struggled with the new changes of remote teaching and learning.
From my experience, some students from BAME backgrounds have been most disadvantaged by this type of teaching and learning. Some of these students have no spaces nor resources to support their learning at home. Generally, most BAME students live in more impoverished regions and shared overcrowded households with multiple generation occupants.
Many of these students have family responsibilities that stop them from having quality time to study at home. Others are the first ones in their families to join higher education, and they have lesser social-cultural capital within their families to support them during such extreme academic challenges.
Bourdieu stipulates that social capital and habitus are necessary to help an individual survive a specific context. Both social capital and habitus are not gained at free will but acquired from past experiences. But they are both determined by the structures available within a context.
Within such arrangements, there are specific power dispositions that enable some people to benefit while others are inhibited. Such dispositions can be determined by social economic and cultural inclinations, which in many cases, disadvantages a minority of people in societies who may have different experiences and power to negotiate these structures they find themselves in.
Moreover, some BAME students have to work part-time alongside their studies to meet their financial needs. As a result, they have limited time to acquire new IT skills for remote learning. Some of these students work as key-workers, or some members of their families, hence the pandemic adds extra worry. Not to mention the BAME groups in the UK and also in the USA seem to be profoundly affected by the virus, especially those working in critical roles, or those living in shared households with people of different ages.
Hence, BAME students are facing massive pressure during this pandemic, alongside trying to meet their education goals. According to HESA, there is an attainment gap whereby 76% of white students gain good degrees while it is only 63% of BAME students. There is a 13% attainment gap between the two groups.
If the gap is apparent in ‘normal’ times, how much would it widen in the lockdown while using remote teaching. From my experience, some BAME students have not engaged actively in their learning during the lockdown due to the challenges outlined earlier. Thus, the gap might even widen unless there is an effective intervention.
My University has been pro-active in supporting all students to access laptops and materials that they need for their learning. There have been initiatives to support students’ academic progress, some financial provision, and mental wellbeing forums. Still, there are bigger social-cultural issues that cannot be solved immediately by the universities.
There are broader social-cultural and economic issues that need to be looked at to reduce inequalities in our society. Different systems mould an individual’s achievement in life and education. First, the microsystems which entail the individual, close relations and environments such as family backgrounds and the status of their family including economic status, religious beliefs. Then the individual is further impacted by other outside factors such as schools attended and the local social systems within their reach.
Due to the limitations mentioned earlier, I wonder whether some of my students, who have opted to defer their studies, will ever come back. I worry that the issues these students have had to deal with might remain unresolved unless all pull together. I hope their families and communities will support them. I do expect the government to offer more support to all students who have been affected by the lockdown.
I have argued in my past research work that ‘dialogue an excellent weapon for justice and liberation‘. Therefore, universities need to provide space and encourage BAME students to engage in dialogues among themselves and with other key players such as the universities, policymakers, and communities to address issues of inequality.
As academics, we also have to actively engage among ourselves and find ways to address the structural problems at the heart of the attainment gap. Making sure our syllabi and methods of teaching are inclusive to all students. We should further engage with BAME communities and further advocate to government institutions to provide the necessary support for BAME students who are facing extreme social and economic challenges.
UK ambassador Rycroft to the UN noted that “How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity.” Thus, this lockdown should not just minimize the spread of COVID-19, but it should be a time for institutions of higher learning, society, and UK government bodies to reflect. Reflect on how groups such as BAME students have been impacted by lockdown and remote teaching. Then, strategize on how they can be supported better in the future. These students have survived a lot of challenges, and as everyone else, they deserve a decent life, dignity, and space to follow their dreams.
Evelyn Corrado, Lecturer at the School of Education at Roehampton University