A refreshed digital inclusion strategy will help protect our widening participation agenda.

Higher Education changes your life. It makes you happier, healthier (and wealthier). Graduates are less likely to need a doctor, they are less likely to be obese, they are less likely to smoke, they are more likely to vote and to engage in their children’s education, and over their working life they are more likely to earn more and have more fulfilling roles.

For many years before the pandemic widening participation was, quite rightly, the centre of a range of government policies. This started with the wish to get at least 50% of the 18-25 aged population into universities, moving to metric-led Access and Participation Plans, and now to initiatives to close the BAME attainment gap.

Since the start of the pandemic there have been worrying signs that those sections of the population who we have been targeting to widen participation and strengthen achievement in higher education, are the very ones which have been most badly affected by the pandemic.

This can be seen in the three aspects which have become central to thriving in these difficult times: technology, resilience, and work experience.

Firstly, comes technology. This is the fastest growing and broadest impact of the pandemic. Almost everything has gone online – from meetings, lessons and training, to medical appointments, exercise routines and virtual nights out. For a whole term and more, pupils in schools and students in colleges and universities were taught virtually, to varying degrees of success. It was an expectation that they would have a quiet place at home, good wifi links and a computer to use to do their work. But of course this was not the case.

At a time when it has been more important than ever to be digital literate, and to have the correct technical infrastructure and support, the very groups who needed the most help, had the least. At my own institution, like others, we had to expand our hardship fund with the help of alumni to help students with no computers. Similarly, the Titan partnership in Birmingham, for example, tried to source hardware and software for pupils in disadvantaged groups.

Secondly, comes resilience. Before the pandemic, employers were already telling us that resilience was a core attribute they were looking for in graduates. By resilience they meant the ability to deal with change, to problem solve and to be adaptable. Resilience is easiest when you feel comfortable in your environment and confident in yourself. It is built up of having just the right amount of support and challenge. Resilience is a soft skill which many universities have been trying to teach, and like digital literacy, it has become something that all of us need. This means that those of us with the greatest social capital and the greatest means of acquiring it will again be at an advantage.

Thirdly, comes work experience, and the power it has to change your life. In a paper that I have contributed to, we found that undertaking a period of integrated work experience as part of your degree, increased your degree classification by an average of half a degree class. Our work added to the previous research, by showing that those students with less social capital, those who were less academically strong or less engaged improved their academic performance the most (Driffield, Foster and Higson, 2011; Jones, Green and Higson, 2015). My colleagues (Moores and Reddy, 2012), further found that those students who undertook a placement year, also increased their chance of gaining a graduate level job. In addressing the BAME attainment gap we found that across a wide range of variables, only undertaking a placement closed the gap (Birdi, Moores and Higson, 2017).

At this time the opportunities for work experience are much reduced, especially when youth unemployment in Britain is on course to more than triple to the highest levels since the early 1980s, according to a Resolution Foundation report warning that a “Covid generation” could be lost to long periods out of work. One company, for example, who used to take over 100 students on placement year, has this year taken none. We are, therefore, once more letting down the people who need work experience most.

So what can we do to address this? We need to work in partnership – universities and employers – to address these three core areas in a way which joins up all three. “Unless things change much faster, many in the bright hopeful generation will not enter these (digital) fields” (STEM Research, 2019). We must ensure that all our learning is accessible and that it is based on the development of the core digital skills that are even more important than ever for employers. We must ensure that we develop social capital and resilience in the university curriculum. That will be needed more than ever by all of us, to get us through the pandemic and beyond, and will be core to those in employment or those seeking to gain employment. Finally, we must make sure that we build up those key opportunities for work experience. This will mean being creative, thinking about ways in which we can support paid internships, mentoring, and work shadowing.

Without this activity, the crucial needs of individuals, small and larger businesses, and the economy will not be met. What I am calling a “digital inclusion strategy” will allow us to come out of the pandemic with less damage to our widening participation agenda.

This article was first published as part of the State of the Relationship 2020 report.