As normal life ground to a halt across much of the world in March, white-collar “knowledge workers” were still able to work, using email, Zoom and Slack from home, often frazzled by children but holding on to their jobs.
Yet hairdressers, chefs, mechanics and other workers whose hands-on skills require close contact with customers were either thrown out of work or placed on furlough. Meanwhile, “front-line” workers such as nurses or bus drivers had to soldier on outside the safety of home, placing themselves at risk of sickness and death.
And some observers fear that these pandemic-driven class inequalities are also playing out in higher education.
Vocationally focused colleges and universities say it has been particularly hard to shift their courses online because so much of what they teach is hands-on and requires physical instruction − and it is precisely these institutions that typically take more students from poorer or otherwise disadvantaged families.
While hard data are as yet difficult to come by, “it’s generally agreed that vocational education and training [VET] students are more hit than general education, academic students”, said Shinyoung Jeon, a policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) who specialises in the area.
In May, the OECD released a report warning that VET was being “uniquely impacted” by the crisis.
While a traditional university can move the entire content of a history or mathematics degree online – losing only the social element of a programme – it is simply not possible to teach a nursing student how to place a syringe via Microsoft Teams.
Despite this, “we’ve seen tremendous innovation and creativity in the past few months”, said Alisha Hyslop, director of public policy at the US-based Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), whose members include instructors in community and technical colleges.
In some cases, lecturers have alighted on “low tech” solutions that, while not ideal, have kept their courses running, she explained. For example, gastronomy students have filmed themselves cooking a meal and sent the video to their lecturer for feedback.
Even before the pandemic, some colleges were driving mobile labs to students in remote, rural parts of the US to teach subjects such as engineering, robotics or advanced manufacturing.
After the coronavirus outbreak, these labs-on-wheels have proved a safer alternative to crowded classrooms, Ms Hyslop said. “It’s already set up. It’s designed to only hold a few students at a time anyway,” she explained.
But there are some things that remain impossible to do remotely. “If you’re training a nurse, at some point that nurse has to interact with a patient,” she said.
One way that vocational institutions have responded is by front-loading theoretical modules and teaching these online during lockdown.
But there “certainly is a fear” that colleges are running out of theoretical material, Ms Hyslop said, and there remains a backlog of face-to-face teaching.
To claw back teaching lost in the spring, some US colleges reopened in mid-June. “They had students in industrial programmes like welding…[who] needed more hours in a face-to-face lab,” she explained.
In Germany, the country’s more than 200 universities of applied sciences are facing some of the same problems.
Engineering students everywhere, even at traditional universities, have struggled to access labs during lockdown. But at German universities of applied sciences, engineers make up close to half the student body, said Nicolai Müller-Bromley, president of the Association of University of Applied Sciences Lecturers (HLB). “We had to switch very quickly. We were not really prepared,” he said.
Furthermore, universities of applied sciences pride themselves on more intimate teaching and a “classroom feel”, with no more than 30 or 40 students in a group, he said. This contrasts with the packed lecture halls that are often a feature of more academically focused German universities.
But the shift online, according to Professor Müller-Bromley, has eroded this selling point. In June, the HLB put out a stark statement warning that virtual teaching, particularly during seminars, was no permanent substitute for in-person instruction and had sucked the life out of classroom discussion. “Academic discourse with students hardly takes place any more,” it lamented.
“I don’t see the faces of my students. I don’t feel the group,” said Professor Müller-Bromley, who teaches public and international law. The move online has “more or less destroyed” the close-knit teaching style of German universities of applied sciences, he said.
In the US, Ms Hyslop of the ACTE voiced similar concerns. One selling point of community and technical colleges is that courses are hands-on, and learning is active, not overly theoretical. “Will they want to enrol in a programme if 60 per cent of the learning is delivered online? That’s the fear,” she said.
On the other hand, colleges are expecting an increase in enrolments from laid-off workers looking to retrain, plus those now less willing to travel to a far-off university, she added.
Overall, the extra strain on vocational institutions means that lockdown has likely damaged poorer students’ education the most, said Ms Jeon of the OECD. “It’s true that the more economically and socially vulnerable students go into VET” at a greater rate than they do to more academic courses, she said.
In the US, where and what young people study is linked strongly to family class. Those from the bottom socio-economic fifth (measured by parental income, education and occupation) are more than three times more likely to take a two-year degree, typically in community colleges, than those from the top fifth, the majority of whom attend selective four-year university programmes.
But there are national differences. In countries such as Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, apprenticeships enjoy more prestige than they do in the US, and so are less skewed towards students from poorer, less educated families, said Ms Jeon.
About two-thirds of students at German universities of applied sciences come from the country’s academically focused gymnasium schools, while at traditional universities the proportion is more like 90 per cent, said Professor Müller-Bromley.
In the Netherlands, vocational institutions take only a “slightly” higher percentage of students from families with no experience of university than traditional universities, said Marjolijn Brussaard, a board member of the Dutch Association of Universities of Applied Sciences. There is less of a correlation between Dutch social class and place of study, she said, and added of the lockdown: “I don’t think this has created more inequality.”
The vocational-theoretical divide is only one of the ways the pandemic is likely to have widened higher education inequalities. Students whose parents lost employment have suddenly needed to pitch in to help the family. Cramped housing and old computers will have made online home study harder for some.
And while control of the virus means that vocational universities in Europe can reopen more normally come the autumn, the pandemic is still running wild in the US, raising doubts about a physical return.
Colleges lost only about six weeks of teaching in the spring shutdown, said Ms Hyslop, but a more permanent adjustment, if necessary, would be daunting. “It’s going to require a significant amount of careful planning…in order to make this work long term,” she said.