One in six higher education students in Ireland come from areas with poor broadband coverage, with large differences by geography and by higher education institutes (HEIs).

This is according to the latest Whitaker Institute Policy Brief – The Disconnected: Covid-19 and Disparities in Broadband Access for Higher Education Students.

The briefing notes that the pandemic forced many HEIs to change the way they taught, with the cancellation of in-person teaching, and staff and students having to adapt to working and learning at home.

Disparities in access to digital learning resources

“Given the persistent nature of the pandemic, and the threat of further waves of the virus, many HEIs continued to deliver courses online and/or use a blended learning approach,” according to the research.

“While these modes of delivery have existed within the higher education sector for many years, the scale of such change is unprecedented and raises a number of important issues.

“One such issue is potential disparities in access to digital learning resources for students residing at home, including high-speed quality broadband.”

According to this research, higher education students in Ireland are considered “at risk of poor access to high-quality internet connectivity by combining national data on the domiciles of students enrolled in Irish HEIs with detailed spatial data on broadband coverage”.

1 in 6 come from areas with poor broadband

Overall, the research finds that one in six higher education students in Ireland come from areas with poor broadband coverage, with large differences by geography and by HEI.

While only 3.3% of IT Tallaght students come from poor broadband coverage areas, 33% of students at St. Angela’s College are classified as ‘at risk’. Over 22% of NUI Galway students are also ‘at risk’.

“Our analysis shows that there is considerable variation in the proportion of socioeconomically disadvantaged students by HEI,” the briefing said.

“This could be associated with other issues around digital learning resources, including affordability of, and access to, appropriate computer equipment, suitable home learning environments, and/or digital literacy skills.

“Furthermore, our research also finds that students from areas with the lowest levels of broadband coverage are more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged on average.

“With continued uncertainty in relation to the pandemic, and the possibility that many students may have to continue to learn remotely, those with poor quality fixed or mobile broadband services will continue to be at a disadvantage.

“This digital divide has the potential to create significant inequalities in education at many levels.”

Investment in upskilling

Investment in upskilling lower-skilled workers in rural regions should be a policy focus for post-pandemic recovery, according to Social Justice Ireland.

Social Justice Ireland published its latest Employment Monitor today (Monday, May 24), which shows that unemployment could exceed 390,000 – an unemployment rate of over 16% of the labour force.

According to the monitor, CSO data shows that 1,225,800 people had their employment impacted by Covid-19. Of these, 245,966 do not expect to return to their previous job. That is more than one in every five.

“Dublin is set to have an unemployment rate of 21%, an increase of almost 350% on its pre-pandemic unemployment rate. All other regions will likely double their pre-pandemic unemployment rates,” according to Social Justice Ireland’s report.

The region with the lowest unemployment rate forecast, the border region, also is the region with the highest poverty rate which, according to Social Justice Ireland, shows “that while it’s good to have a job, it doesn’t guarantee freedom from poverty”.

Social Justice Ireland’s policy proposals include that investment should be focused on education and training for people in low-skilled jobs or those in rural areas as part of an overall regional employment strategy aimed at generating sustainable jobs; and invest in the rollout of decent broadband and transport systems to enable rural dwellers to access education.

Develop skills at community level

Labour Party Senator Mark Wall has said that the government needs to look at how skills can be developed and retained at a community level.

He said that much of the need and isolation experienced by rural areas is “a result of communities being effectively abandoned by successive governments”.

“Government should consider improving Community Employment [CE] schemes, including allowing for long-term CE schemes in non-profit organisations for people who have disabilities or who have been distant from the labour market for a long time,” the senator said.

“The state needs to reach out at a community level, and involve people not currently engaging with the labour market in these schemes.

“Irish people are doers, and have worked hard throughout the pandemic to help those who need it most. Government needs to step up and reflect on the power of the state and public agencies to make communities and society at large work better and fairer.”