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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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The pandemic is not over. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill just went back for a week of in-person term. Seven days later, they have shut down, with over 500 students in isolation. They can now offer only remote tuition. So I repeat to those who are being optimistic about this year: no, the pandemic is not over, it is far from over, and there are many many challenges ahead. In this post I want to turn particularly to the challenge of access to library resources over the coming year for students, with particular reference to the disability equality implications.

The Challenge of Access

I am currently working on various parts of our university’s policy around the pandemic for the 2020-2021 academic year. As the Strategic Lead for Digital Education at Birkbeck, University of London, I have been heavily involved as our institution has committed to offering all courses for online delivery over the next year, prioritizing the safety of our students and staff while delivering a high-quality educational experience, digitally. This has involved our digital education team designing and running a training course for all module conveners in order to rethink the basic design of these modules, so that they are (re-) ‘born digital’ in delivery and we haven’t just tacked this on as an afterthought.

That said, there is one area of policy that remains extremely tricky, namely: access to physical library resources. Birkbeck has guaranteed that students can complete the 2020/21 academic year remotely with some limited exceptions for practice-based modules where in-person attendance is essential. This is particularly important for students who need to shield from the coronavirus. But the future effects of the pandemic remain uncertain.

What we cannot, and what no university should do, is to plan for the best scenario and then fall back, as we did in March, on emergency “no detriment” policies for assessment. This simply is not acceptable given how much time we have had to foresee the problems. We need, instead, to plan for the worst, even if we hope for the best. Academia needs to plan now for how it is going to assess work when students – in both general and specific cases – may not have access to physical library resources. Without mitigation there are serious disability equality implications from this, as those in the clinically vulnerable group will be most adversely affected.

In particular, we have a challenge with third-year dissertations and Masters-level courses that involve essay writing (mostly in the humanities disciplines but also in the social sciences). These courses involve students conducting independent research. The resources that students require for this cannot be pre-anticipated centrally by the College; they are often sought from libraries beyond our control (Senate House or the British Library); but form a core part of assessment in these subjects/essays (i.e. there is a requirement that the student has consulted these resources).

The challenge for us is that students have been promised that they can conduct the entire degree remotely and requiring physical library access is not congruent with this. Some students may be shielding and unable to access physical libraries (as of 2020-08 the advice for those in the category is “stay at home where possible” – Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, 22nd June 2020). Libraries outside of our control may voluntarily (or compulsorily) go back into lockdown at any point over the coming year. Our own library may voluntarily (or compulsorily) go back into lockdown. Further, access to human participants for research and also various types of fieldwork may be affected.

What do we need to do? We have a set of planned mitigations worming their way through at Birkbeck, ranging from working with students to select appropriate methodologies, to early discussions with external examiners on how we will assess work where a student couldn’t get access to physical resources. This will then inform the marking process to ensure that we do not mark any student down for being unable to consult resources. This requires a fundamental academic rethink of assessment and secondary research. Because there is no way that academic reward structures for students should value a student risking their health simply in order to consult a resource.

Digital and Open Access

I should note that this is mostly a problem because we do not have digital access to the books that we hold in our physical collection. (It is mostly books with which we have this problem and thus this dilemma now worst affects the humanities disciplines.) Time and again the “affordances” of print – which are many – are also not affordances for those with disabilities; it is the very thing that “disables” such students when a digital copy would have been enabling. Instead, physical books impose physical attendance as a requirement, locking out those who are unable, for health reasons for example, to attend in person. We could have solved this problem with open access to monographs if we’d thought about it harder a decade ago, or if publishers would provide us with digital access to books that we hold in physical copy. The problem is, as I noted above, though, that our students might conventionally seek access from other libraries, so even this latter option wouldn’t wholly help. We cannot afford access to all the texts that might be needed from such libraries.

This is what has annoyed me for ages when organizations such as the Royal Historical Society have said that there are “equality implications” around open access to monographs. They don’t mean: it would improve equality for disabled students who have physical access problems by having OA. They mean that they believe that ECRs who elect (or who are compelled under mandates) to publish OA won’t be hired. (Despite the fact that it will be their members or fellows on the hiring panels.) There are housebound people who haven’t been able to get to libraries for years. Yet we are now going to see a mass scaling of the problem of physical access. Students in the humanities – and particularly those with disabilities – will now intellectually suffer far worse than their peers in the sciences because we do not have open access to as many of our resources.

Yet, we are where we now are. We now have to work with a system where many students – and particularly those with disabilities – will be unable to access the books they would need for their studies. This requires universities to think now about how they will alter their assessment paradigms in the name of fairness and safety.