COVID-19 and the Digital Divide

The pandemic has highlighted inequities in access to broadband.

Governments and universities need to take swift action to ensure no one is left behind in the shift to online learning prompted by COVID-19, according to a new survey published by the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) in the United Kingdom. According to the report, there is a “double digital divide.” That is, unequal internet access exists on two fronts: among countries of varying economic levels, and among employees within individual universities.

The survey notes that 83 percent of respondents from high-income countries report having access to broadband internet, but that number drops to 63 percent for respondents from upper-middle-income countries, 38 percent for those from lower-middle-income countries, and 19 percent for respondents from low-income countries. The digital divide continues within universities themselves. Seventy-four percent of senior academic leaders are likely to have access to broadband, but such high connectivity is only available to 52 percent of professional service workers, 38 percent of academics, and 30 percent of students.


The COVID-19 pandemic has laid these disparities bare, according to the report, but also highlighted areas for improvement. Respondents note that the greatest challenges they face now are providing internet accessibility for students (according to 81 percent), boosting staff training and confidence (79 percent), handling connectivity costs (76 percent), and engaging students (71 percent).

To solve some of the problems, the report suggests that universities develop policies to address their own digital divides. This includes providing students with financial and technical support to improve access to data, devices, and broadband. In addition, the ACU recommends that governments and policymakers prioritize funding for higher education, support digital transformation within universities, and develop an agenda for the future of digital higher education. Achieving these goals, the report concludes, will require a concerted effort to bring together university leaders, telecommunications companies, employers, and students to design effective solutions.