Coronavirus might not discriminate, but our society does. Whether it’s the fact that the workers propping up our lockdown lives tend to be poorer, or the higher numbers of black, Asian and minority ethnic people dying from coronavirus, this crisis is shedding light on the fault lines in our society. That’s why we must use the pandemic to reimagine a more equal and just society – and as engines of social mobility, universities have a crucial part to play.
We will all suffer in some way, but we know from past crises that those who are worst off stand to lose the most and take the longest to recover. Unemployment has already skyrocketed, and many businesses are indicating they are unsure they will have the financial resources to continue operating in the future. The impact on the least wealthy, women, younger people and some ethnic minority groups will be more pronounced, because they tend to work in the sectors worst affected by lockdown.
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This is why the government and wider society will need to use every tool available to bolster and protect the economy when the pandemic ends. One way is through taking advantage of our excellent universities. As Universities UK indicated in recent communications with government, higher education generates more than £95bn a year for the UK economy and more than 940,000 full-time equivalent jobs.
But we have a more direct role to play, too: we develop highly skilled people to support our economy, drive business productivity, and provide vital workers for the NHS and schools. Crucially, we can help teach the skills that people who have lost their jobs need to move on with their lives.
Universities themselves must also use this time to step up to their efforts to improve social mobility. We have to ensure that we find ways to not just uplift the gifted but also to significantly increase the numbers of students from marginalised and deprived backgrounds studying, succeeding and transforming their lives.
At present, there are a number of universities across the UK doing the heavy lifting when it comes to widening access to the most disadvantaged. We need to see more institutions strengthening their commitment to reaching communities where most people don’t go to university.
To achieve this, we need all universities to step up work with hard-to-reach schools. This means working closely with these schools to design social mobility programmes that work for their communities, engage with further education colleges and adult learners, and use contextualised offers to give more opportunities to students whose grades may be lower because of the school they went to.
There are some crucial ways in which the government can help with this agenda. For starters, it needs to make sure that any introduction of student number controls does not cut off the pipeline from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups, or perhaps go even further and remove them from the cap altogether.
We also need to see greater flexibility around student loans to enable more unemployed people to return to study. Equally, the reintroduction of maintenance grants would be hugely beneficial in supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Relative to other costs incurred by the pandemic, these would be comparatively small.
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Universities are facing financial challenges, and there is a risk that without investment from government some institutions may struggle, preventing them from supporting the UK’s economic recovery. Although bottom lines may be a priority for many universities during this challenging time, we need to ensure the focus on equality, diversity and inclusion isn’t lost.
Developing a workforce in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive, ensuring that we close the gap between those who get a university education and those who do not, and tackling discrimination in all of its forms remain as important as ever.
Lynn Dobbs is the vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University
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