Supporting vulnerable students during disasters

17 September 2020
Strategies to keep students engaged during COVID-19
Universities have had to rapidly develop strategies to support students during the COVID-19 pandemic. But are the strategies helping equity students, including those with parenting and caring responsibilities, international students, women and students from low socio-economic backgrounds?

This is a question a team of researchers from ten universities across Australia are researching after receiving a grant from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.

Led by Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone at the University of Sydney, the team will survey current students to better understand their perspective on universities’ support during the pandemic.

Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone from the Faculty of Science

Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone from the Faculty of Science

“Disasters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and bushfires earlier this will year, will likely increase in intensity and frequency. In difficult times, we don’t want to risk the educational outcomes of our students. We want to ensure they feel supported and remain engaged in with their studies and we need to know if the decisions universities make actually support students who most need it,” Dr Mercer-Mapstone said.

The research will compare data across three types of institutions, including research-intensive, innovative and regional universities, to identify best practice from universities with significantly different cohorts to better support equity students in times of crisis.

“Each type of university has a unique student cohort, for example regional universities will have higher proportion of remote students. It’s important that we see what support strategies work for different student groups because they may differ,” Dr Mercer-Mapstone said.

From the project, the research team hopes to build a database of institutional responses and compare those to the needs and wants of the students.

Currently studying a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education at the University of Sydney, Dr Mercer-Mapstone is a passionate advocate for involving students as partners and co-creators in higher education.

When I was a student, I saw the flaws in my degree and thought it could have been done better. As an academic I have been working to involve students in creating a university environment and curriculum that works best for them.
Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone from the Faculty of Science

“I work with students from marginalised backgrounds and I learn something new every time we have a conversation," she said.

“An unexpected silver lining I have seen from the COVID-19 pandemic has been the innovative teaching and learning practices that have been developed overnight. We have seen teaching get the support and recognition it deserves across the higher education sector.”

The University of Sydney has introduced a suite of support measures to address the range of challenges students are facing – including financial assistance, mental health and wellbeing support, peer-to-peer support and technology assistance, as well as immediate financial support to students who are experiencing financial hardship.  

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Life) Professor Susanna Scarparo said the pandemic has really exposed the challenges students face in accessing education.

I’m worried that if our students disengage, they may never return to education.
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Life) Professor Susanna Scarparo

"We are really looking to support our students through this crisis in any way we can, so that they can continue their studies. This research will help us better understand the needs of our students and how we can better help them," Professor Scarparo said.

The other universities involved in this research project include:

  • Latrobe University
  • RMIT
  • University of Technology, Sydney
  • University of Adelaide
  • Griffith University
  • Flinders University
  • Central Queensland University
  • Charles Sturt University
  • University of South Australia
  • University of Glasgow

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