COVID-19 and Educational Transitions Conference Report

Posted on: 7 August 2023 by Dr Sam Saunders in Conference & Event Reports

Person on Computer
(Student working online)

The COVID-19 pandemic had a serious effect on the experience of students at every level of education. With the move to online teaching taking place almost overnight, the loss of in-person interaction, and the advent of digital technologies that now seem almost essential to our everyday lives, there has been a lasting effect on the HE sector.

But, an underdiscussed element of the pandemic is the effect it had on students transitioning into higher education from Level 3. The COVID-19 and Educational Transitions conference, held on the 8-9 June at Kingston University, London, purported to explore this exact question – how did the pandemic affect students’ transitions into higher education from their pre-HE contexts?

Day 1 opened with a paper from Radu Cinpoes, who discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic crystallised structural inequalities in education that can be revealed by a close exploration of the term ‘resilience’. Cinpoes argued that the pandemic was simultaneously a short-term shock with long-term consequences, and yet was also an acute and immediate manifestation of a chronic inequality problem within the system. In short, to be ‘resilient’ means something different depending on a person’s racial, cultural, economic and educational contexts, and ‘resilience’ is a dynamic process, not a static quality. Different ‘sects’ of society thus ‘weathered the storm’ differently – those at the bottom had no choice but to put up with it, while those at the top found ways to turn it to their advantage. The call to ‘be resilient’ therefore places responsibility in the wrong place – it is used as an excuse to justify continued oppression.

The next paper – my own – explored the measures implemented by educational and academic developers in HEIs throughout the pandemic that were designed to help academics make their students’ transitions into higher education easier. I constructed and distributed a survey to the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) mailing list, which asked participants to outline what the measures to help students’ transitions into HE actually were, if/how they were measured/evaluated, whether they have remained in place, and whether they would do anything differently in future. Results showed several clear themes in terms of the measures actually taken: constructing online spaces for staff and students to interact, increasing support for digital pedagogy, and focusing on building a sense of community between students and staff when operating digitally. However, results also showed that there was a severely unequal experience in evaluating the effectiveness of these measures. In some cases, only senior management had seen evaluation data, and in some cases, they had not been evaluated at all. However perhaps the most interesting theme to emerge was that the pandemic, in essence, forced universities to enact measures that they should have been doing pre-pandemic, but had simply never managed to do so – such as improving VLE standards and practice. The pandemic therefore acts as both a catalyst to potentially reduce inequality in the student experience, and yet also the lens that reveals the sector’s apparent unwillingness to engage with this fully.

Next up, Jolanta Shields continued the theme of inequality with a paper that discussed the implementation of a compulsory Level 5 Active Citizenship module in which students are required to do at least 70 hours of volunteering. A survey delivered to these students found that in the initial stages of the pandemic students lamented the loss of personal interaction and the ability to socialise, as well as feeling like they struggled to engage and that they had received a diminished ‘university experience’. However, as the pandemic progressed, students now place less of an emphasis on this and the statistics show that levels of dissatisfaction have not remained as low. This, Shields argued, may show that students’ interpretation of what the ‘university experience’, and indeed ‘socialising’, may have changed permanently.

The final paper on Day 1 came from Melanie Stockton-Brown and Amy Tatum, who critiqued the concept of resilience (and calls to increase it) in the context of the experience of Transgender and Non-binary students. Stockton-Brown and Tatum argued that the idea of ‘having difficult conversations about these debates’ in the classroom – and indeed in assessments – is damaging, as the existence of Transgender and Non-binary students is not ‘a debate’ when this is actually the lived experience of people who may themselves be part of the student body. The presenters argued that ‘resilience’ has therefore been weaponised, as it often masks a call for assimilation into heteronormativity, and that Transgender and Non-binary students often experience a diminished sense of belonging at university. As a result, pedagogy should focus on the lived experience of students, rather than asking them to simply ‘be resilient’ in the face of ‘difficult conversation’.

Day 2 was opened by Wendy Garnham who outlined ‘The Doughnut Model’ – a model of student support enacted throughout the pandemic for Foundation-level students. In essence, the model places the student at the centre of a network of support that can include academic- and study-related assistance right through to pastoral or wellbeing support. The model allows for communication between different areas of support to avoid repetition of work or overloading of one particular area of the student’s interaction with the university (often their tutor, whom students frequently see as a manifestation of the entire institution). The model has yielded positive results: permanent withdrawals from the Foundation year have decreased, and progression to Level 4 has increased to 90%.

The final paper of the conference came from Peter Finn, who explored how different secondary-institutions may have ‘gamed the system’ during the period of the pandemic when A-Level grades were teacher-assessed. Presenting some truly shocking statistics, Finn outlined how there was a significant gap in how state schools applied Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) than private or public schools, and that the gap between the two was much larger than was originally anticipated. Finn also showed evidence of how, in some private schools, this was a conscious activity.

The overall theme for this event, it emerged over the two days, was a criticism of the term ‘resilience’ and how any level of critique of this term immediately begins to reveal the structural inequalities that exist within HE. To be asked to be ‘resilient’, which naturally everybody was during the height of COVID-19, means something different to everybody – either to weather the storm, or, if you have the privilege, to move out of the storm’s way, or harness the storm for individual ends. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that these inequalities are ever-present within the sector, and only through careful evaluation and meaningful effort can change eventually begin to take shape.