The Digital Divide

CONNECTED looks at how the University of Reading’s new Digital Support Fund has been essential in supporting students who find themselves in ‘digital poverty’ due to COVID-19.

The University is committed to ensuring that no individual is disadvantaged in accessing our degree programmes because of their background. However, the closure of campus due to the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted that some of our students are struggling to engage in university life because they don’t have reliable access to the right equipment or internet connection, and many have struggled to engage fully with academic, social and welfare offerings during the pandemic.

With autumn term just around the corner, students’ engagement with academics and each other continues to be heavily reliant on online teaching whilst social distancing measures are still in place.

The University is pleased to announce the introduction of a new Digital Support Fund to help bridge this digital divide.

The Digital Support Fund

The new Digital Support Fund will provide 50 students with a grant of £500 to be used as a contribution towards buying a laptop and equipment such as a mouse, a keyboard, an extra monitor or for paying broadband bills.

The introduction of this new fund was made possible by a gift from Santander – one of our long-standing supporters – and since its launch in the summer, many of our other supporters have also donated to this fund. Thank you to everyone for your generosity.

Matt Daley, Head of Student Financial Support at the University of Reading, tells CONNECTED how much this new fund means to students.

Matt said: “We’re so grateful to have received donor funding for our new Digital Support Fund. Lockdown has raised awareness that a lot of families don’t necessarily have IT equipment or reliable internet access, and this has impacted students’ ability to engage with university life and their studies during the pandemic.

“The money to start this type of support is going to make a difference to students’ lives and studies, and I hope we can continue this fund to help more students in the future.”

Levelling the playing field

Anne-Marie Henderson, Director of Student Success and Engagement at the University of Reading, shares with CONNECTED why it’s crucial to recognise that some students need more support than others.

She explains: “Equality is treating students the same, but we need to be clear that not every student begins at the same starting point. Some students have no internet access, some have caring responsibilities and some are the first in their family to go university.

“We need to level the playing field and ensure that all students can succeed regardless of their background.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated social inequality, whether through education, health or access to Wi-Fi and online resources. What we as a University community strive to recognise is that all students have really different life experiences and have therefore been impacted differently by the pandemic, requiring different levels and types of support.

“The pandemic has made us acutely aware that access to internet and the right IT equipment creates a barrier to some students.

“I’ve had conversations with students during lockdown who have no laptop, and their family – which consists of parents working, siblings doing school work, alongside the student trying to do university work – are all sharing one computer. Other students have no, or very poor broadband while trying to complete online exams. All of this creates very stressful situations for students that could be avoided.

“Digital poverty has always existed, but it has been exacerbated by COVID-19 as the students who previously relied on the library or laboratories at university don’t currently have access to this equipment.

“This new fund will enable a student to do something as simple as buying a laptop, or improve their Wi-Fi, making a huge difference to their lives.”

Discover more about the Digital Support Fund.