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How COVID-19 Exacerbated Inequality Amongst Students

By Micah Emma Chan

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the globe causing catastrophic economic impacts and relentless strain on healthcare systems. The profound repercussions of the current situation have exposed the underlying injustices within our society. 

Closer to home, the pandemic has unveiled the growing and acutely underestimated social divides within our local community. University students have had to adjust and adapt to the ‘new normal’ that is learning from home, however the ability to achieve this has largely varied depending on the backgrounds and contexts of a diverse range of students.

The gravity of this problem has been grossly overlooked, not for lack of concern, but perhaps a sense of viewing the situation from a macro-lens that fails to account for the daily struggles of individuals across the community. 

From international students being sent back home and having to adjust to the new reality of completing their studies from halfway across the globe, to domestic students struggling to gain a sense of routine and productivity in an overcrowded and chaotic household, the pandemic has had numerous implications on students’ ability to complete their studies successfully. 

Notwithstanding the significant hardships faced both locally and globally, most notably a 7.1% unemployment rate and the concerns of those most vulnerable to the virus; it is necessary to acknowledge the varying experiences and individualised implications of COVID-19 on the student community. 

The pandemic has impacted everyone differently and to varying degrees, and it is important to reflect on the considerable ways that many students in our cohort have been affected.

Whilst some students may find studying from home an effortless and perhaps refreshing change—waking up five minutes before class and enjoying a nice warm cup of tea in pyjamas—this is far from the experience of many others. For them, online study means having to fight with siblings over the use of the one laptop in the house and struggling to engage in classes when the Wi-Fi signal continues to drop in and out. 

Not to mention exam season, where the disparity is even more enhanced, with some students having to complete take-home exams amongst the distraction of other household members in what is far from a conducive study environment. Whilst on the other hand, another student may be lucky enough to have peace and quiet in an entire section of the house to themselves. 

In a new reality that is heavily reliant on virtual connection, the digital divide within our society has become clearer than ever, prompting the questioning of how to achieve equitable learning from home. The closure of public spaces such as libraries has further exacerbated this issue, disproportionately affecting those in need of free access to high-speed internet and a quiet place to study. 

In addition to this, the pandemic has not only aggravated the digital divide in an educational context but also a social one. With the growing popularity in online social events including group movie nights, some students are being inadvertently excluded due to the inability to afford entertainment subscriptions such as Netflix and Stan. 

The impact of the pandemic is highly personal and individualised — not everyone has been affected equally. It would be inaccurate to suggest that COVID-19 is the sole perpetrator of the social disparity that has become abundantly clear within recent months.

Rather, the pandemic has revealed the cracks in our society, as students grappled with these socio-economic issues long before social distancing and online study. However, the unique situation that COVID-19 has presented can only be described as an illuminating revelation of the social inequality prevalent even amongst our own peers.

This is an important conversation to be had within the public agenda, not only due to its pertinence to us as fellow students but also because, as described in Marie-Eve Desrosiers’ recent Policy Options article “student bodies are a microcosm of broader society; they reflect society’s divisions.” 

If the student cohort is a reflection of the wider community, it is crucial that we take serious consideration into how to approach this growing inequality specifically within an educational context.

The majority of students working a part-time job are typically involved in the retail and hospitality industries. Due to the closure of most cafes and retail stores, there is a large portion of students who are directly affected by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Students have therefore been hit by the academic stress of transitioning to online learning, coupled with the pressures of unemployment and possible loss of household incomes.

UNSW is providing financial aid for students affected by COVID-19. These schemes include emergency support payments and interest-free loans for those particularly impacted by the pandemic. For any questions regarding financial aid or assistance in transitioning to online learning, contact the Student Support Advisors to get in touch and receive more information. 

Whilst many students should rightly be commended for the ease in which they have been able to adjust and perhaps even enjoy the flexibility of online university, it is crucial that we involve and support all students – especially those who are struggling in a chaotic and uncertain world.