How can public policy react to a digital divide exposed by the coronavirus pandemic?

Tackling the emerging discrimination resulting from the digital divide, an issue exacerbated by COVID-19, is paramount to reducing social inequalities impacting a variety of socioeconomic groups. The regeneration and modernisation of public libraries could facilitate universal internet provision, endorse and further the trend of working from home and promote community engagement.

Public library use has steadily been falling year by year, polling by Statista (2020) shows that since 2005 there has been at least a 20% drop in respondents who had visited a public library. Coates (2018) attributed this decline in library use to poor stocks that are badly organised, short unpredictable opening hours and buildings being poorly maintained and lacking decoration. Furthermore, Coates (2018) highlights that libraries are digitally outdated compared to alternatives, with Amazon dwarfing their capability of offering multiple means of accessing texts and even going as far as providing book recommendations. Separate from the libraries, however, this decline in use can be attributed to funding cuts to libraries as a consequence of austerity measures. Despite the criticisms and the under utilisation of libraries, public support for libraries remains overwhelming, a poll commissioned by Money Saving Expert (2015) found that 90% of respondents felt their local library service should be protected.

Libraries are becoming somewhat outdated seeing as the incentive to fund them is steadily decreasing. Modernising libraries could solve two significant issues caused and/or accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Modernising them would provide incentives to continue funding them to preserve them and would also solve the digital divide created by the pandemic, which is putting those without technology and internet access at a disadvantage. Modernising them would entail changing their overall structure. In other words, existing libraries would be divided into two different sections; the first section would be the traditional library meant for reading books and studying in a quiet environment whereas the second section would be meant for free access to the internet and technology. Furthermore, it can provide students with an alternative study space where they can socialise.

This proposal would provide significant benefits to disadvantaged young people. The first section detailed the fact that even before covid there was a large gap in the attainment of disadvantaged young people compared to their peers. A 2017 study found that there is a gap of half a grade in every GCSE subject taken (Education Policy Institute, 2017:np). The Sutton Trust (Lally and Bermingham, 2020) also found that 15% of teachers reported that they believed that not all their students had access to a device at home on which to do online work. Seeing as a multitude of online learning and revision resources are available freely, providing a device and internet connection will benefit those who cannot afford paper textbooks. The quiet working environment will also benefit low-income students by providing a quiet space to work, which many are likely to have lacked during the lockdowns. More details can be found above, but by situating these rejuvenated libraries within residential communities and targeting the places with the largest gaps in attainment, we can avoid people being excluded due to travel costs as most will be able to walk from their home to a library.

A policy agenda tackling the growing divisions resulting from the digital divide would also benefit the UK adult population. The Office for National Statistics’ 2019 report on the digital divide promulgated that only 51% of households with annual earnings of £6000-£10,000 had home internet access. Comparatively, 99% of households with an income of more than £40,001 could use the internet at home. Such digital exclusion exacerbates difficulties for individuals already living in poverty. Job applications, budgeting, accessing health and social services, and applying for Universal Credit are all made more challenging as services are continuously shifting to the digital sphere. Community internet provisions are imperative in reintegrating the digitally excluded members into society. Locating internet hubs within communal spaces not only encourages social interaction amongst communities but also enables those without home access to vital online services. However, providing internet access as a policy in isolation may not be sufficient. The Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index report 2019 further affirms that 22% of the population lack basic digital skills. Although the primary aim of our proposal is universal internet access, integration of computer/internet training may be integral in increasing the inclusivity of digital services.

Furthermore, digital inclusion is a critical social justice issue that is not widely attributed to its effects on ethnic minorities in the UK. However, the most recent data in 2019 from the ONS represent disparities in internet usage for different ethnicities. It found that disparities had narrowed for minority groups and were less significant than income (ONS, 2019). Elahi (2020) argues that this does negate ethnicity as a factor, it is vital to consider intersectionality as ethnicity and socio-economic factors work together to create digital exclusion. Gypsy and Traveller communities (no reference to this group in ONS 2019 dataset) face digital exclusion and are both an ethnic minority and affected by socio-economic factors. In the 2011 consensus, Gypsies and Travellers experienced the lowest employment rates, highest levels of economic inactivity (Comarty, 2019). Factors such as low literacy rates and environmentally daunting classroom environments could make it more difficult for members from these communities to benefit from digital technology (Scadding and Sweeney, 2018). In 2018-2019, pupils from the White Gypsy and Roma ethnic group had the lowest GCSE attainment (ONS, 2020). Libraries could be a great alternative by providing a comfortable environment and providing digital services that support low literacy levels.




%d bloggers like this: