In the space of a few short months, the internet has become universities’ only means of connecting with students, including those from under-represented backgrounds.

Students from low socio-economic households, or areas where few people progress to higher education and are the cohorts that are likely to be some of the most impacted by the current situation and the groups the University is tasked with identifying, reaching, and engaging. The Widening Access Team take a lead on this and our role is run and coordinate activity to increase the diversity of the student population at Bath, enriching our campus community and making it more representative of the general population.

Pre COVID-19 pandemic, widening participation (WP) initiatives included a large programme of visits to secondary schools and colleges, student attending on campus events and several sustained programmes. We had also become one of the very few universities to deliver some outreach programmes online. Using online platforms gives us a greater geographic reach and gives students the flexibility to engage as they have the time. The most disadvantaged students are the ones that are likely to have a job outside of school as well as studying and we recognised this in the way we built the programme.

Helping students reach their potential

The HE sector is in a race against time to deliver digital outreach programmes as it looks ahead to the 2021 intake. Universities still need to meet both government and their own diversity targets, plus there is the wider issue of enabling the social mobility for the good of society at large.

Our experience with delivering Pathway to Bath online means we’ve been able to quickly move our other initiatives online, and in the process further refine our expertise in this area. This knowledge has positioned us one of the leaders in HE sector for online outreach. We are keen to share our knowledge and expertise and last month I presented at an online Westminster Education Forum focused on social mobility, alongside leaders across multiple sectors, to share our experience of developing widening access programmes. The WP team has also participated in several webinars and online meetings, advising others in the sector on how to deliver outreach online.

The Digital Divide

We are of course acutely aware that many thousands of students are struggling to access online learning with lockdown exacerbating the so-called ‘digital divide’ in the UK. This presents a pressing, and rapidly growing, problem of disadvantaged students becoming further disadvantaged as they fall behind in their studies and lack the ability to engage with extra curricula support that charities and universities are providing.

Our commitment to widening participation, has seen the University of Bath step up to address this challenge with the launch of the Digital Divide Project. Our aim is to provide a single, combined response from the education, charity, and corporate sectors to reach those students in most need of help and establish the best way of providing support.

Smart phones and other devices may seem ubiquitous, but 1.9 million households have no access to the internet, and millions more are reliant on pay-as-you-go services and we estimate that there are around 150,000 post-16 students without regular access to a laptop and/or the internet. The Widening Access Team is therefore working with numerous partners in the HE and charity sectors, and liaising with schools, colleges and academy chains to understand the scale of the issue so that action can be taken as quickly as possible. Together we are forming a joint ask to the corporate sector to try to provide support (both hardware and knowledge) to the most disadvantaged post-16 students. I have several leads and am hopeful that together we can provide a solution to those in need. If you are reading this and would like to be involved then the details are on the digital divide project page.

Looking ahead

Over the few months before the COVID-19 outbreak, I along with Mike Nicholson, Director of UG Admissions and Outreach, were working our way around departmental meetings. We have presented to several departments about the characteristics of their students and challenges we must meet our access and participation targets. In the current situation we hope that all staff will consider how best they can support all students, and we will continue with our tour around the University once we return to some level of normality. In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the characteristics or needs of your students, please do contact me.

All our programmes – On Track to Bath, Pathway to Bath (conceived as a digital programme) and Discover Bath will be delivered online this year, and I’m grateful for all the work from colleagues across the University that have helped us so far and continue to help us transition. We currently have around 700 students working across those programmes this year and we are looking into delivering repeat versions of them over the summer and into the new academic year to engage even more disadvantaged students.