Sector leaders call on government to make education websites free for UK students

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Chief executives of leading education and technology bodies unite to request greater support for learners in need during the COVID-19 lockdown 

Leaders at Jisc, the UK’s education and technology not-for-profit, the Association of Colleges (AoC)Universities UK (UUK), and ucisa, the professional body for digital practitioners in education, have come together to seek parity of online access for learners during the coronavirus crisis.  

In a joint letter sent to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden MP, yesterday, the four CEOs wrote:

‘With campuses closed, thousands of students are now learning online at home, where both broadband and access to mobile devices is prohibited by availability, connectivity and cost. The further education (FE) and higher education (HE) sectors have worked very hard to successfully ensure the continual provision of teaching and learning online but, put simply, this is unaffordable and inaccessible for many learners. Not only does this prohibit their education, but it is damaging for their overall wellbeing.’

Dr Paul Feldman of Jisc, David Hughes of the AoC, UUK’s Alistair Jarvis and Deborah Green from ucisa, have asked Dowden and Ofcom to work with telecoms providers to make all relevant online education sites free to access for UK FE and HE students.

This issue impacts on a significant number of learners. In FE, AoC figures show that 16% of 16 to 18-year-old learners are entitled to free school meals, and HESA data for 2018/19 shows that 18% of the HE student population England are in the lowest quintile on the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD).  

A case in point, one undergraduate student, wrote to their university when unable to afford or access lectures or reading material, saying: 

‘Now that the government have declared a lockdown, I find myself without internet access. I cannot access lectures, attend online seminars, or even do any reading. I am currently using data on my phone, but I do not have much and cannot afford to add any more. I have already applied for hardship this year so cannot do so again. I face physical and mental health issues as well as struggling for money and I fear that now I will have to drop out of uni because I cannot get my assignments done without internet access.’ 

While welcoming the government’s recent announcement of new, generous mobile and landline packages to ensure people are connected, chief executives of these four education and technology bodies now request that students are considered as priority group of vulnerable consumers in discussions with telecoms providers.  

Green comments:

“University and college IT directors and their teams have moved swiftly to ensure that the systems and tools are in place to enable their students to continue their studies as seamlessly as possible at this extraordinary time. Whitelisting educational sites in the way we have jointly requested will remove remaining barriers for students who are having to rely on broadband or on mobile data, by allowing them to access the vital resources they need without charge.”

Feldman adds:

“Supporting disadvantaged learners with free access to educational resources during this national crisis will help ensure they don’t fall behind, while also delivering on the government’s edtech strategy, which seeks to remove barriers to education and improve educational outcomes using technology.” 

Jisc, ucisa, UUK and the AoC hope to collaborate with governments and telecoms providers to help ensure that learners can continue their education and thrive through this challenging time.