Coronavirus (COVID-19) higher education, further education and community learning and development: wider harms

This paper considers the indirect, wider harms of the pandemic on students, learners and staff within the Further Education, Higher Education and Community Learning and Development sectors from the perspective of stakeholders and drawing on the findings or relevant reports relating to these sectors.

2. Disruption to student learning

There is now considerable evidence (1) from around the world (2) that there have been disruptions to student learning in further and higher education. This has also been the case in Scotland.

During the past three academic years, in-person teaching and learning has been subject to a range of protective measures, some of which have led to significant changes to the format and experience of learning, both negatively and cumulatively affecting the quality of the learning experiences of Scotland’s students and learners. The vast majority of students’ educational experience has been adversely affected by reduced levels of in-person teaching and learning. However, the most significant deficits are likely to have been experienced by the most socially disadvantaged and vulnerable students and learners, and by those who have studied vocational courses or courses with significant practical elements where there has been a lack of access to work placements. This has resulted in some educational experiences not fully covering the required breadth of knowledge and experience in order for students to develop the necessary skills required for the workplace.

Student, college and university representatives all reported that because of the pandemic’s cumulative impact on learning, restoring more face-to-face provision on campus is becoming increasingly important to ensure that course progression is maintained. Many students are demanding more in-person teaching: one poll of over 400 Strathclyde University students (3) showed that 75% of the students surveyed wanted more in-person teaching. The NUS Coronavirus Student Survey Phase 3, November 2020 (4), sampled the views of over 4,000 students in Scotland and highlighted the deficit in practical skills (e.g. wet labs) and a need to take steps to avoid longer term employability issues for affected students as it might lead to future challenges in the workplace including students not having the required level of skills and experience when looking for a job.

College and student representatives reported that some non-practical courses were delivered online with little or no in-person teaching as a consequence of practical subjects being prioritised. Given that Scottish Government guidance during a large proportion of the pandemic was to work from home where possible, many courses that didn’t require students to physically present in a lab, workshop or similar were almost delivered fully online for extended periods of time. This has led to those students being disadvantaged as they have been deprived of learning experiences where face-to-face interactions would have been more beneficial, such as tutorials and group-work.

Specific examples of challenges provided by student and college representatives around in-person teaching included one college delaying the start of the academic term for most students in order to enable deferred students on practical courses to complete their final year. Another example is dentistry students being required to complete an extra year of study, repeating the 2020-21 academic year. Students from vulnerable groups, including those with additional support needs, face significant challenges in their educational experiences and in many cases have been unable to access a consistent level of support. For example, many English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students remained in their own communities due to lockdowns and have not progressed their language skills.

College and student representatives explained that the number of students dropping out of courses has increased. Further increases in drop-out rates remains a serious risk and new entrants who started in January 2022 are another at risk cohort. College representatives indicated that overall numbers of college student enrolments are considerably down in the current academic year and attributed this to issues including pupils staying on at school, more students going to university as a result of increased attainment since 2019 (5), the greater availability of low skilled jobs and college course numbers being capped due to restrictions such as physical distancing requirements. The February 2022 Summary Statistics for Attainment and Initial Leaver Destinations evidences that the proportion of school leavers in Higher Education (at either Universities or Colleges) increased from 44.2% for 2019/20 to 45.1% for 2020/21 while the proportion of school leavers who were in Further Education fell from 28.1% to 23.3% and the proportion of school leavers that were unemployed decreased from 6.0% for 2019/20 to 4.2% for 2020/21 (6). In addition, the statistics show an increase in the proportion of school leavers coming from S6 (62.8% in 2019/20 to 63.2% in 2020/21), suggesting that more S4 and S5 pupils are staying on to later years of school provision.

While concerns about reduced levels of in-person teaching have had a significant negative impact on learning experiences, it is also important to recognise that online learning had a number of benefits. Student representatives stated that the pandemic had demonstrated that many elements of university courses can be delivered online. University and college representatives reported that the blended learning environment has been helpful, accelerating innovation and providing flexibility for some students who found it better suited their circumstances. Other positives included being able to listen to lectures at different times, and that the chat function may be less intimidating for some students and they can also pre-record contributions. The Office for National Statistics survey Coronavirus and higher education students: England, 19 to 29 November 2021 (7) reported that of the surveyed students who were enrolled in an educational institution during the 2020/21 academic year, 43% indicated that their academic performance has been better since the start of the Autumn 2021 term compared with the previous academic year. University representatives indicated that lecturers have been very creative in adapting to prepare, deliver and assess more online courses. Staff commitment, engagement and effort has enabled online learning to happen. Student engagement with online materials has been positive in many cases. However, it was acknowledged that other students have been disengaging with online learning for reasons including challenges with digital access as well as the absence of in-person interaction.

There is a specific need for support to improve captioning. Since 23 September 2020, all ‘time-based media’ (video and audio) have been required to either provide an accurate transcript or captioning, or both (video only). This created a substantial workload issue as digital content significantly increased during the pandemic. University representatives stated that pre-recorded and other asynchronous university materials have been particularly useful for international students who were unable to travel for some of the time during the 2020-21 academic year and during the early stages of the current academic year. This resulted in some students studying in different time zones. Looking ahead, these resources should ideally continue to be available to support student transitions.

College and student representatives described how digital connectivity is inconsistent across Scotland and this has been a particular issue for many students from remote rural areas who have been further isolated. Some college students are using Smartphones to study online. One in ten respondents to the Thriving Learners survey of university students (8), felt that they did not have adequate internet access where they lived to effectively engage with university and friends online. Student representatives also reported that access to other learning resources was affected during the pandemic, particularly for remote institutions with students unable to access books in libraries. This has improved but remains a concern.

University representatives commented that many student-facing services have been delivered online. This, at least to some extent, will continue to be the case in the future as this experience has been positive for many students and they have benefited from a more flexible support service with a greater reach. University representatives also reported that assessment policies have been changed as a result of the pandemic and evidence is emerging of a closing of the race and disability awarding gaps, although further evidence is needed to understand this.

College representatives indicated that in courses that include mandatory placement elements, many students have been unable to undertake those placements, and whilst awarding bodies may have altered assessment models to enable qualification awards, this does not necessarily equip students with the required skills for the workplace. Colleges must therefore evaluate the loss of learning for students over the past three academic years and plan for how this can be addressed, whilst at the same time catering for new students commencing their courses of study, who themselves will have previously experienced lost learning, often from a school setting. They added that school – college partnership links have also been negatively affected during the pandemic, reducing the learning opportunities provided for the cohort of pupils who would have otherwise benefited from these links.

Community Learning and Development (CLD) Learner Impacts

There were specific issues raised by CLD representatives on the disruption to learning due to a lack of available facilities for in-person teaching and training. This was because many providers often let their facilities and rely on the facility owners who, when the situation dictates, are likely to prioritise their own requirements for access at the expense of CLD provision. A survey by Youthlink Scotland (9) in October 2021 found that 54% of respondents had access to facilities that they need, compared to 22% in June. Although this was an improvement on previous survey figures during the pandemic, the provider noted that there remain significant challenges in obtaining access to schools, community lets, leisure centres, faith based centres, other community venues and also outdoor spaces. Hiring facilities costs are becoming increasingly expensive along with many other costs.

CLD representatives cited digital access as a significant challenge and reported that the digital divide is still very real and exacerbating inequalities. Although access to technology is a major issue, not having the skills and understanding to use technology is also a barrier. This is particularly true for many adult learners and they will continue to miss out on learning experiences until this is addressed.

CLD representatives indicated that learning loss is a major challenge for many learners where progression, course completions and destination outcomes have been negatively impacted. For the most vulnerable learners, in some cases, learning regression has taken place during the pandemic necessitating a re-establishing of learner basic ground rules for attendance and behaviours including time-keeping, respectful relationships etc. It is crucial that appropriate steps are taken to ensure that learners who have lost motivation and enthusiasm for learning receive the appropriate support. This includes providing key messages to learners through effective CLD communications and marketing.

Due to the varied nature the of work within CLD together with the range of different settings that staff and volunteers are required to operate in, when trying to apply appropriate Covid-19 guidance, some find it confusing. It would be helpful if good practice could be more effectively shared amongst staff and volunteers across CLD in order to promote a more consistent approach towards supporting adherence within the sector.



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