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Research project update: Institutional approaches and student perspectives on COVID-19 equity student support initiatives

In 2020, the NCSEHE allocated funding for 17 research projects under the annual NCSEHE Research Grants Program, with a particular focus on the implications of COVID-19 for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This month, Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone from the University of Sydney presents a progress update and preliminary findings from one of the projects, exploring university supports for equity students during the pandemic and future crises.

Project summary

Disasters disproportionately impact marginalised groups. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption in higher education. Universities have rapidly responded, drastically altering students’ experiences.

This project seeks to understand how 10 Australian and two international universities have endeavoured to support equity students to retain access to learning throughout COVID-19. Strategies undertaken by institutions to support students are being analysed, as well as equity students’1 perspectives on those strategies. The research compares data across three types of universities (research intensive, innovative, and regional/remote) to identify in what ways institutions with significantly different cohorts can learn from each other to better support equity students in times of (future) crisis.

Research activities and preliminary findings

Conceptual framework

We have developed a new conceptual framework which we are using to drive our research, integrating three different theoretical/conceptual lenses including:

  1. intersectionality from feminist literature to understand the ways students with multiple marginalised identities experience oppression and exclusion from higher education systems; specifically how students with intersectional identities may be more at risk during crises
  2. crisis intervention from social work literature to frame how we understand the different stages of the pandemic as “acute” and “chronic”, each with different associated impacts on students and institutional responses
  3. ecological perspectives from social work literature to provide insight into how students interact with their institutional environment within the broader ecosystem of society’s response to the pandemic.

This conceptual framework will be a valuable contribution to the higher education literature in understanding and responding to major disasters and disruptions in the future.

Artefact analysis

Regarding the empirical aspects of the project, we are in the process of analysing institutional artefacts which document our 12 partnered institutions’ responses to COVID-19:

  • Data from institutional websites has been analysed to develop a holistic view of available support.
  • Emails from institutional executives (VCs, DVCs, and PVCs) have provided a temporal view of support offered over the “acute” and “chronic” stages of the pandemic during 2020.

At this stage, participating educational institutions have shown common themes in precautionary health practices related to COVID-19 (i.e., social distancing, compulsory masks, stay at home if feeling unwell), offered online learning alternatives to students wishing to continue with their studies, and promoted some form of financial advice/support to their student body.

Each institution has also attempted to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on students’ ability to study in a wide variety of ways. Noticeably, there were very few artefacts which detailed support offered specifically to students from equity groups. For the artefacts that did, the two most common target groups were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and students who spoke English as an additional language.

Interestingly, only a minority of webpages and emails actually specified which student cohort was being targeted (e.g., according to study load, delivery mode, first/final year, undergraduate/postgraduate etc.). In these examples, students needed to further clarify whether they were eligible for the support.

These early findings indicate universities would be well placed to develop more strategic, tailored communication plans in anticipation of crises, to decrease the effort and time taken by students to access the support needed. This is particularly true for students from minority groups who are arguably more at risk in times of crisis, given the already disproportionate barriers they face in university.

Student perceptions

A survey disseminated across the 12 institutions has returned over 2,200 responses, with 40 per cent of those responses from students who self-identity as belonging to a minority group. That is a dataset rich for comparative analyses exploring the lived university experiences of different student groups, according to minority and non-minority identities, and the pandemics’ impact on this.

Very early analysis indicates that differences do exist. For example, 70 per cent of students from minority groups reported that their university learning experiences have got “a little” or “a lot” worse because of the pandemic, compared to 60 per cent of non-minority students.

These trends exist across students’ financial situations and wellbeing, with higher proportions of minority students reporting they are worse off post-pandemic relative to non-minority students.

The same is true of students’ experiences of institutional support where 25 per cent of minority students reported not feeling supported compared to 20 per cent of non-minority students. Similarly, more minority students reported that they did not find the university offered support useful than did non-minority students.

It is important to note that these summary results have yet to undergo analyses as to whether differences between cohorts were significant. However, they do indicate a potential trend for students from minority backgrounds being hit harder and ending up worse off than their non-minority counterparts during the pandemic crisis.

Future directions

Both datasets will undergo deeper analyses and comparison across data sources. These results will form the basis of practical recommendations for higher education institutions regarding how best to support students during times of disruption and crisis. Recommendations will focus specifically on ensuring students who are already most at risk in our university systems are not disproportionately disadvantaged by crisis, or by our approaches to offering support. This work is critical in ensuring that resilience in our university communities is equitable and that educational institutions live up to their ethical responsibility to ensure that all students, regardless of identity, can thrive.

The final report will be published on the NCSEHE website later in 2021.

1Students from self-identified minoritised backgrounds

Posted 1 June 2021 Posted in General