74% of surveyed students don’t have adequate WiFi: An interview with The 93% Club Cambridge

‘We really need to get this message across to the people that are controlling our futures’

Amidst the challenges of the pandemic, students have been particularly hard hit, with the difficulties of online and home learning. The 93% Club Cambridge, a branch of the “UK’s largest network for state educated students”, have been focussed on these challenges recently, and how they are especially affecting lower income and state educated students. 

Their Publicity Officer, Sophie Beckingham, explains that although “everyone’s being negatively affected by the pandemic”, regardless of their background, certain problems with home learning, such as “poor WiFi, lack of space, a dependent family member, having to share space with siblings” are “generally see[n] more in students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, so the students that would have gone to state school.”

In fact, The 93% Club’s recent survey of nearly 700 students from more than 60 universities across the UK has shown the shocking extent to which state educated students are being affected by these issues.

We spoke about this survey more with the President of The 93% Club Cambridge, Emma Shardlow, and the Publicity Officer, Sophie, and how change is needed to support students during these challenging times.

‘They don’t feel like they can participate’

Sophie told The Tab that a shocking 74 per cent of surveyed students said they didn’t have an adequate WiFi connection: “They’re having to share the WiFi with so many family members, and only one of them can use it at a time, so they have to schedule in when they’re going to watch their lectures.” 

For example, students’ parents are having to use the WiFi for their job and that takes priority over their studies, or others end up working at night so they don’t disturb a parent who works night shifts and is therefore sleeping during the day. Working “at odd hours of the day to fit in with their family’s schedule” is clearly impacting students’ ability to work effectively.

(Photo credit: The 93% Club via Instagram)

‘It’s hard to communicate and come across as professional’

A huge 77 per cent of people said they live in a noisy environment. Emma explains one student’s impactful anecdote about this: “There was building work going on literally right outside her window […] while she was doing her exams. There was drilling and she couldn’t concentrate, and so that affected her performance.”

The ability to concentrate at home was a recurring issue, with students sometimes “working at their kitchen table”, distracted by their family “preparing food around them.” 

Emma added that some students “shared their room with their sibling, and their sibling was being loud while they were in supervisions, so they had to mute themselves throughout the whole supervision or seminar, which obviously means they can’t participate in it because they felt that they were being an inconvenience or a nuisance if they had sounds in the background.”

Sophie explains that worries about their background have meant many students are “afraid to turn on their camera or microphone”, with their lecturers sometimes unfairly labelling them as “stand-offish or rude” for not doing so. 

However, this doesn’t just affect studying too. A huge 77 per cent of people feel their job prospects have been negatively impacted during the pandemic. As Sophie explains, having a “noisy environment” makes it “hard to communicate and come across as professional” when speaking to employers. 

In fact, some students reported employers criticising or even marking them down for problems like background noise: “People are being penalised for something that’s outside of their control that’s going to affect their future.”

(Photo credits: The 93% Club via Instagram)

‘People [are] saying they’re embarrassed of their cramped room’

However, the survey’s largest figure was that 87 per cent of students said their mental health has been directly affected by their working environment. Sophie reports “heartfelt responses” of students being “embarrassed of their cramped room or having to share a room with their sibling”, compared to “their peers who might have more space or better WiFi access.” 

This problem of lack of space also means many students are “working from their bed” and “that’s affecting their leisure time”, with their bed being both “[their] work and [their] place of relaxation”, creating a damaging lack of work-life separation.

(Photo credits: The 93% Club via Instagram)

‘They’re affecting their ability to work and do well in their degree’

Students’ physical health is being affected too, with many reporting “backache” from uncomfortable workspaces, or, due to lack of space, resorting to working on the floor: “They haven’t got the right furniture to sit at a desk all day on, whereas usually, you’d […] have your uni room that’s equipped with a desk chair. 

“[…] People were talking about having to work on camping tables and camping chairs – that’s all they had access to. If you’re spending 12 hours a day or something on your laptop, it’s not ideal at all.” 

Emma hopes that the survey provides “quantitative insight” into these serious issues: “These things are actually affecting people’s mental health, they’re affecting their ability to work and do well in their degree, and ultimately, that’s going to impact how well they do come exam time.”

(Photo credits: The 93% Club via Instagram)

‘This is much more of a widespread issue than a couple of students that have some dodgy WiFi’

Emma believes some recent responses from Colleges have shown “they haven’t been as understanding as they could be” about students who need to return to College to avoid workspace-related issues. She thinks particularly of Trinity’s recent emails: “They need to be looking at that data, and thinking this is much more of a widespread issue than a couple of students that have some dodgy WiFi.” 

She continues: “It’s not just what Trinity were saying, that ‘silent majority.’ It’s actually a majority of students that are struggling.” 

Emma says there needs to be a “more coherent policy across the board” for Colleges’ return policies, and that there ultimately needs to be a “rhetoric change”: “We’ve seen with Trinity […], that kind of active discouragement, versus the kind of passive or general rule of ‘try not to come back’. It’s the way in which these things are said, and we don’t want students to feel like their reasons for coming back aren’t valid.”

Sophie explains more about how the decentralisation of Cambridge is making things difficult: “I remember when I was applying to Cambridge and being told to pick a college that you like, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because they’re all kind of the same.

“I think that’s true if you’re a very specific person from a very specific background, but what this has shown is that if you are from a low socioeconomic background or a minority background, […] not all colleges are the same and not all of them are handling this the same.

“If they are going to uphold the idea that all colleges are equal and will all do the best for their students, then they actually need to act on that, and show that, in how they’re treating students during this time of crisis.” 

Ultimately, Emma believes Colleges “can’t just get students in from these backgrounds to boost [their] statistics, and then not continue to support them while they’re at College.”

(Photo credits: The 93% Club via Instagram)

‘It should be based on the quality of their performance in the interview, not the quality of their WiFi’

Written acknowledgement of these issues from universities and employers is vital to The 93% Club. In addition, Emma would love them to introduce “some kind of training or guide” to make employees aware of the problems students are facing, and the procedures to use to respond in an understanding way.

Emma suggested some practical solutions universities could use to help: “Flexible essay deadlines, more flexible supervision hours, and if somebody’s WiFi cuts out, there needs to be options to have drop-in sessions if they missed whole chunks of supervisions, classes, seminars. […] They need to be able to catch up on that work because it’s not through any fault of their own that they missed it.” 

Emma also believes employers could valuably take “a flexible stance on video interviews”, not judging students for background-related issues: “It should be based on the quality of their performance in the interview, not the quality of their WiFi.” 

(Photo credits: The 93% Club via Instagram)

‘On 21st June, whenever [Covid] is going to end, this isn’t all going to stop’

Emma explains the initiatives The 93% Club are working on to rectify the issues the survey has highlighted: “We will have a national bursary, hopefully, through sponsorships that we’ve been getting, where students will be able to apply for funding for various things, if that’s a smart shirt to wear in a video interview for example, or if you need some sort of books.”

They are also planning an employability week in April, where they will be running “a week of careers events”, covering many different industries, as well as “upskilling workshops”, which they hope will give students valuable career experience. 

As Sophie remarks, “on 21st June, whenever [Covid] is going to end, this isn’t all going to stop.” The pandemic has been a “real litmus test”, as Emma says, for accessibility within education, and there clearly needs to be extensive change to ensure students are getting the support they need to flourish.

You can find the full results of The 93% Club’s survey here

Featured image credit: Sophie Carlin and  The 93% Club Cambridge via Cambridge SU 

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