Digital poverty in the UK: How does it impact access to education?

Posted in: Education, Evidence and policymaking, Welfare and social security

James Davenport is the Hebron and Medlock Professor of Information Technology at the Department of Computer Science, University of Bath. He is also a founding member of the British Computer Society’s Digital Divide Specialist Group. In this capacity, he recently joined a reception of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Data Poverty which focused on how the digital divide impacts access to education. This blog summarises his reflections.

As society, both world-wide and in the UK, has become more digital, the gap between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ has widened. This phenomenon goes by several names: digital poverty, digital exclusion or the digital divide.

The Digital Poverty Alliance defines digital poverty as the “inability to interact with the online world fully, when where and how an individual needs to”. Operationally, the usual definition of digital poverty is to be lacking one or more of the following:

  1. Connectivity (even decent Wi-Fi is less universal than we would like to think)
  2. A suitable device (many secondary teachers have stories of children writing A-level essays on mobile phones during ‘home schooling’)
  3. Skill (particularly in the older population, but far from exclusively)
  4. Confidence

Digital poverty intersects with wider social inequalities. This is of particular concern in education, where digital poverty creates participation and access barriers for children and young people who are already significantly disadvantaged.

Data Poverty APPG discussion on the impact of data poverty on access to education

The Data Poverty All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) is a cross-party group of parliamentarians that seeks to tackle digital exclusion in the UK. Its most recent event, which focused on the impact of data poverty on education, was hosted by Julie Elliott MP (Labour, Sunderland Central) and featured a range of parliamentary and industry experts who shared their reflections on the challenges of removing digital access barriers to learning and education.

The first speaker was Toby Perkins MP (Labour, Chesterfield and Staveley, Shadow Minister for Skills and Further Education). He started out by reminding us that Covid had brought an existing problem into the forefront. He highlighted how vital digital skills are for individuals, and remarked that a recent APPG State of the Nation report showed that 6 million young people in the UK lacked connectivity and/or access to a suitable device.

Helen Milner (CEO Good Things Foundation) described digital poverty in the UK as “immoral”, “appalling” and “shocking”. During the pandemic, about a quarter of already disadvantaged children reportedly struggled to access remote learning. Fundamentally, data poverty is poverty, and Milner asked why we are charging VAT on social tariffs (which offer cheaper broadband for people claiming benefits). Removing barriers to digital access, she argued, could also bring wider economic benefits of well over £13 billion over ten years.

Paul McKean (Director Further Education and Skills at Jisc) remarked that, while funding is a powerful lever, improving the material conditions for greater access is just one part of the story, noting that “devices and data bundles have languished in boxes because of lack of confidence”. With regard to connectivity, he highlighted the need to increase access to eduroam, the roaming service used by the international research and higher education community. He shared an example from a pilot project in Manchester, where the city’s universities are collaborating to provide eduroam access on public transport and other public spaces, such as libraries.

Helen Bird (Head of Content and Policy at BT) reported that, during the pandemic, there was a lot of exchange between BT, the Department for Education (DfE) and other relevant actors. However, she felt that the opportunity to bring about significant change – including investment in major broadband rollout – was lost, primarily due to short-term thinking in the DfE. Connectivity in the UK is about 40% cheaper than in the US, but there is a group for whom anything will be too expensive. Bird also referred to a recent House of Lords inquiry into digital exclusion and the cost of living crisis which heard evidence suggesting that every country that does better than UK has connectivity in the benefit package.

Finally, Matt Warman MP (Conservative, Boston & Skegness) pointed out that there was a great deal of cross-party consensus on the need to tackle digital poverty and removing access barriers to online education and learning. We also have – partly thanks to Covid – a lot of data to shed light on the problem. As such, he said: “There is no good reason why we haven’t done more. This topic crosses many government departments, and all governments are bad as this. I was the relevant minister at the time, and what Helen said didn’t reach my desk”.

From isolated piecemeal interventions to collaborative and comprehensive solutions

As Matt Warman’s closing remarks suggest, a key reason why digital poverty is not tackled effectively – by central government and others – is that solutions require cross-departmental or cross-organisational collaboration. Jisc’s efforts to make eduroam available on public transport in Manchester serves as an illustrating example. Jisc was unable to do this alone and the pilot was only made possible through a partnership between Jisc, three Manchester universities, the Greater Manchester Local Education Authority, Transport for Greater Manchester (who have to authorise the fitting of the equipment to buses) and the bus companies themselves. The Manchester pilot is an urban one, and there may be an opportunity for the University of Bath to lead on a similar rural pilot.

Another problem with current efforts to address digital poverty is that these are often piecemeal solutions which end up moving the problem around rather than solving it. For example, Job Centres will help with electronic-only job applications, but they cannot necessarily help with electronic-only follow-up. Schools will help pupils complete online universities applications – providing both access to computers and bandwidth as well as tailored coaching to increase digital confidence – but there is no equivalent help for those applying for degree apprenticeships. This may partially explain why students from deprived communities are less likely to get into a degree apprenticeship than a regular university degree course, an issue raised by Toby Perkins in his address.

To tackle digital poverty effectively, we will need more holistic solutions that address all four of the access barriers mentioned above – connectivity, devices, skill and confidence – and are mindful of how the digital divide reflects and compounds wider social inequalities.

The Data Poverty APPG reception on “The Impact of Data Poverty on Access to Education” took place on 18 April 2023. This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of all participants.

Posted in: Education, Evidence and policymaking, Welfare and social security


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