22 SES 01 C, Paper Session
The COVID-19 pandemic which has swept across Europe changed many facets of life from working conditions to freedom of movement. Education has been one of the sectors disrupted by the crisis, with educational provision both in Europe and globally having gone on-line. In higher education, this new moment has highlighted certain advantages to on-line study, including lower living costs for students who would otherwise study away from their family home. On the other hand, it has sharpened inequalities between students, emphasizing existing, but also creating new types of vulnerability.
The concept of vulnerability has been central to the sociology of disasters. For Tierney (2019), the term encompasses both the higher probability of suffering negative effects of disasters as well as the likelihood that some groups will be less able than others to negotiate the recovery process successfully. Importantly, however, authors such as Thomas et al. (2013) have noted that individuals should not be held solely responsible for their vulnerability, but rather that an understanding of vulnerability should include scrutiny of the broader social, economic and political context that creates and reinforces vulnerability. Similarly, the sociology of higher education has been concerned with vulnerable groups of students, such as working-class students, mature students, students with disabilities or students from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, highlighting the ways in which institutional contexts can adversely affect their academic experiences (e.g. Cooke et al. 2007, Reay, David and Ball 2005, Thomas 2002). For example, Leathwood and O’Connell’s (2003) study of non-traditional students’ experiences throughout their degree course found that alongside financial difficulties and confidence in ability, lack of support from teaching staff contributed to their educational struggles.
This proposal draws on both the sociology of disasters and the sociology of higher education in order to explore which factors contribute to student vulnerability amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and how this vulnerability is experienced. More specifically, we examine how students’ assessments of their study progress during lockdown are affected by their financial situation, including the infrastructure required for studying from home; by the presence or lack of a support network; and, finally, by the (non)possession of digital skills. This particular focus has been inspired by Bourdieu’s (1986) elaboration of economic, social and cultural capital, as well as other authors working with these terms (e.g. Lareau and Weininger 2003). In our analysis, we reflect on the importance and meanings of these concepts in a lockdown student setting. We also explore how institutional characteristics such as supportive lecturers and organization of lectures, seminars and practical classes relate to students’ positive or negative assessments of their progress in their program of study. Finally, we include on our list of possible explanatory factors positive and negative feelings concerning one’s academic activities, as well as health challenges. Our broader aim is to contribute to research on student vulnerability with a particular focus on what is old and what new in student experiences at times of crisis.
We administered an on-line questionnaire, launched on SurveyMonkey, which was filled in by full-time and part-time undergraduate and Master’s students studying at European higher education institutions in April 2020. The questionnaire was launched by the European Students’ Union on April 21st and was accessible until May 3rd 2020. Participation in the study was voluntary and anonymous. The questionnaire consisted of 7 parts comprised of 31 closed-type questions and 5 open questions. The seven parts focus on: students’ socio-demographic and academic characteristics (e.g. gender, age, educational level of parents, student status, field of study); academic life (experiences with teaching, workload and assessment); infrastructure and skills for studying from home (e.g. access to a desk, a computer, a quiet place to study, confidence in using online teaching platforms); social networks of support; emotional life (general well-being and experienced emotions); life circumstances (e.g. employment, care responsibilities, tuition fees, scholarships); and written general reflections on studying from home. In total, 17,116 respondents from 41 European countries accessed the questionnaire. Countries, which had a higher number of respondents, include Portugal (6,652), Romania (3,110), Croatia (2,029) and the Czech Republic (1,768). Out of the initial sample, 12,336 (or 72,61%) of them reported that their on-site classes were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After filling out the socio-demographic and academic characteristics block of questions, 9,196 students continued with the survey. To identify which of the examined factors were the most important for explaining variability in students’ academic adjustment, we conducted a hierarchical regression analysis. Students were also asked four open-ended questions in the final part of the questionnaire: what they liked and disliked about studying from home, what problems they have encountered in the process and recommendations for improving their study experience. The answers to these open questions were coded openly using descriptive codes. The coding process ended once saturation in responses was reached. The codes were grouped into deductive themes: advantages of studying from home, disadvantages, problems and recommendations.
We find that the strongest predictors of a perceived drop in academic performance include not having a quiet place to study, access to a computer, a good Internet connection and access to course study materials. We also found that students with low bonding social capital and students with low digital capital are more likely to report a drop in academic performance. Finally, risk factors for a drop in academic performance include having mental health problems, being of a younger age and male. Students’ written responses indicate that although for some there are benefits to studying from home, this can also be a frustrating experience, particularly for those who do not have adequate infrastructure in the home, i.e. who do not have a quiet place to study or have a poor Internet connection or poor access to study materials. Indeed, students reported feeling frustrated with their Internet connection breaking or being insufficiently fast. They also indicated the need for more free and online accessible resources for studying. According to one student, “the most important thing is that I can’t have all the additional material I could get from the university library.” Students called for a lighter workload, clearer teacher instructions and more understanding for their stressful living and studying situation both on the part of academic staff but also university administration.
Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In: A.H. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown, A. Stuart Wells (Eds.) (1997). Education, Culture, Economy and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cooke, R., Barkham, M., Audin, K., Bradley, M. (2004). How Social Class Differences Affect Students’ Experience of University. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 28(4), 407-421. Lareau, A., Weininger, E.B. (2003). Cultural capital in educational research: A critical assessment. Theory and Society, 32(5-6), 567-606. Leathwood, C., O'Connell, P. (2003). ‘It’s a struggle’: the construction of the ‘new student’ in higher education. Journal of Education Policy, 18(6), 597-615. Reay, D., David, M.E., Ball, S. (2001). ‘Making a Difference? Institutional Habituses and Higher Education Choice. Sociological Research Online, 5(4). Thomas, L. (2002). Student retention in higher education: the role of institutional habitus. Journal of Education Policy, 17(4), 423-442. Tierney, K. (2019). Disasters: A sociological approach. Cambridge: Polity Press
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