In late July 2018, UK education secretary Damian Hinds, gave his first major speech on the issue of social mobility to the Resolution Foundation.

The minister spoke of ‘encouraging progress’ but went on to comment that it is ‘not acceptable’ that 18-year olds from the most advantaged areas are five and a half times more likely to go to university than their disadvantaged peers.

This comes at a time when universities are expected to spend £860 million on improving access and when the highest-placed among them are increasingly under fire for failing to attract more disadvantaged students.

In response, Tim Bradshaw, head of the Russell Group of top UK universities called on central government to do its own part, restoring maintenance grants for the most deprived.

With the education secretary and universities minister due to receive recommendations from the Augar review of tuition fees and university funding in England in the coming months, it could mean that in 2019 we see tuition fees being cut. However, another likely outcome is that the government is urged to cut lending to students by simply reducing their numbers.

These barriers to university are a cause for concern, particularly when drop-out rates are on the rise in the UK and are especially high among the most disadvantaged. Of these disadvantaged students, a significant number have disabilities.

The uptake of technology in education can be part of the solution by offering students an experience that is more economical and adaptive and crucially, accessible.

Economical

According to research by Times Higher Education, the costs of university textbooks are increasing in the UK. A report recently issued by the publication estimated that equipment alone costs university students £60 a month. This presents a particular problem for disadvantaged students who are set further back in their studies by these extra costs, giving their better off peers a head start.

Institutions can help to level the playing field in this regard by employing a carefully considered digital strategy. A report by HEPI ‘Rebooting learning for the digital age’ suggested universities in the UK are behind the curve in this regard.

At Manchester Metropolitan University for instance, the use of technology in the curriculum design process has had a substantial impact on students’ overall learning gain.

Adaptive

Technology can help universities develop a more adaptive and flexible learning environment, which can enhance the rich online learning environments universities are already have in place for their students. The right tools can provide universities with another step towards a more interactive, digital future.

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For example, universities can focus on ensuring their materials are available digitally. Digital textbooks can be downloaded anywhere, anytime to be read later on, with or without an internet connection.

These can be accessed by any device of the student’s choice, making them a valuable option for those with added responsibilities such as paid work or dependents, as it means working away from the university is easier. It also means students no longer have to compete for potentially limited numbers of key texts which may be available in print.

Supporting those with additional needs

Studies have repeatedly shown that disabled people make up the most disadvantaged groups in the UK. However, this clearly does not have an impact on their desire and ability to thrive at university, if given the correct support.

The ability to download content onto a personal device will be especially beneficial for such students, as will the additional tools such as ‘read aloud’ and quick bookmarking, that are available with many eTextbook readers. This combined with a robust system of support for students with disabilities will help them meet their potential and flourish.

With digital textbooks accessible anytime and from anywhere, there will be no need for ‘heavy-lifting’ and storage of textbooks. This is particularly beneficial for students with physical disabilities who cannot regularly attend lectures or for whom frequent trips to the library is a difficulty or for whom the carrying of textbooks is especially burdensome.

It is encouraging to see central government in the UK focusing on the power higher education can have for social mobility. With VitalSource technology we can help to address high drop-out rates, making higher education from start to finish, a welcoming and accessible experience for all students.

Alice Duijser, Managing Director for EMEA, VitalSouce

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