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You are reading: Recommendations for equitable student support during disruptions to the higher education sector: Lessons from COVID-19

Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone (CI)1, Tahlia Fatnowna1,  Professor Pauline Ross1, Dr Lisa Bricknell2, Dr William Mude2, Professor Janelle Wheat3, Dr Ryan P. Barone4, Associate Professor Doreen E. Martinez4, Professor Deborah West5, Dr Sarah Jane Gregory6, Professor Jessica Vanderlelie7, Professor Tricia McLaughlin8, Dr Belinda Kennedy8, Professor Amanda Able9University of Adelaide, Professor Philippa Levy9, Dr Kasia Banas10, Dr Florence Gabriel11, Professor Abelardo Pardo11, Dr Ian Zucker12

Executive summary

Disasters disproportionately impact marginalised groups. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption in higher education students’ experiences. We sought to understand how twelve universities across three countries endeavoured to support students to retain access to learning through COVID-19, particularly those from minoritised and intersectional backgrounds.

We were guided by the following overarching questions: What strategies did universities employ to support students during COVID-19 and what was the uptake of these strategies by students?; How did students perceive the usefulness of institutional COVID-19 support initiatives?; and How did students experience the impacts of COVID-19in 2020? To deepen our learning, points of comparison were made between countries, institution types, and student cohorts from minoritised, intersectional, and non-minoritised backgrounds.

Methods and analyses

Twelve universities participated in the research, with ten located in Australia, one in the United States of America (US) and one in the United Kingdom (UK) as international comparison points. Institutions were classified as being research-intensive, regional/remote, or innovative. To guide our research, we developed a conceptual framework. This framework integrated perspectives from three distinct fields of knowledge and theory—intersectionality, crisis intervention, and ecological perspectives. The framework attends to the micro-, meso-, and macro-level environments and interactions of our sector, across two temporal stages of the pandemic—acute and chronic crises periods. We identified learning, wellbeing, and finances as the three main foci of our investigation of student support and experiences in our analytic framework.

A mixed-methods approach was used to address the research questions through two data collection processes at each participating institution: an analysis of institutional communication artefacts (emails and websites) detailing university responses to student support during COVID-19; and a survey of over 2500 students regarding their perceptions of the impacts of the pandemic on university experiences and the adequacy and use of institutional support during COVID-19. The artefact analysis focused on the intended student demographics, type of support, accessibility of support, timing of support, and user experience of support access. The student experience survey collected data on: student demographics and self-identified minoritised status; sense of belonging at university; change in student experience resulting from COVID-19; uptake and usefulness of university support services.

Key findings

The artefact analysis considered 164 artefacts referring to 865 individual support mechanisms across 12 institutions. Most institutions equally split resources between learning (40%) and wellbeing (39%) support, with less support offered for students’ financial needs (21%). Across all three areas, how students could access support was often unclear, suggesting that communications and websites could more specific. Overall, few supports were targeted specifically for students from minoritised backgrounds (16% across all universities). In Australian universities, most of the tailored support was for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with regional/remote offering the highest proportion of tailored support.

Students in their survey responses reported strong preferences for how universities communicated during COVID-19. Mass communications which were impersonal made students feel unseen and undervalued. Asset-oriented communication was more positively received than deficit-orientated communication. Notably, many students longed for more specific communications based on student demographics, tailored to their individual circumstances.

Of the 2524 students surveyed, 77% belonged to at least one minoritised group, with 45% having intersectional identities (identifying as belonging to more than one minoritised group and experiencing the resulting compounding effects of multiple oppressions). Students from non-minoritised backgrounds reported slightly higher levels of feeling supported than students from minoritised backgrounds. Almost three quarters of all students indicated their learning experience got a little or a lot worse during the pandemic. There was no significant difference between how students from minoritised (72.5%) and non-minoritised (74.2%) backgrounds perceived the impact of COVID-19 on their learning experience. However, students with intersectional identities were statistically more likely to indicate that their learning experience got a lot worse than their peers from a single minoritised background (31.9% vs 27.5%).

Students from minoritised backgrounds were significantly more likely to report their financial situation got a lot worse (29.5%) compared to students from non-minoritised backgrounds (16.2%). A significantly larger proportion of students with intersectional identities reported that their financial situation became a lot worse (34.3%). Despite being more likely to access financial support offered by their university, groups from minoritised backgrounds were less likely to be aware of these supports. Overall, 33.3% of students from minoritised backgrounds reported that their wellbeing got significantly worse due to the pandemic compared to 25.4% of students from non-minoritised backgrounds. A greater proportion of students with intersectional identities reported that their wellbeing got a lot worse (36.7%). Students from minoritised groups also indicated that their sense of belonging was lower than students from non-minoritised backgrounds and that this got a lot worse during the pandemic. These students were also less likely to be aware of wellbeing support offered by their university.

Students at UK and US Universities indicated that both the learning experience and general wellbeing was worse during the pandemic than students from Australia. Fewer students at international universities indicated that their financial situation worsened due to the pandemic when compared with students at Australian Universities.

Students shared stories in their open responses of an unequal divide between students from minoritised and non-minoritised backgrounds across all categories. For example, students who could not afford the technology required for learning or who did not have private study spaces at home suffered in learning experiences. Students who had carer responsibilities at home experienced declines in mental health. Students who self-identified in the survey as being from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds who lost their jobs also could not afford essentials like housing or food.

A key benefit that students gained during the pandemic was that the shift to learning online/blended learning for previously face-to-face students opened up a level of flexibility which made learning more accessible, particularly for students from minoritised backgrounds. This accessibility and flexibility prompted ripple benefits which enhanced students’ wellbeing and financial situations.

Learning online was described as both one of the best and one of the worst aspects of students’ experiences during the pandemic. Where learning online was a positive experience, it facilitated better grades, greater enjoyment and wellbeing, and deeper connections among students and staff. Where learning was a negative experience, it resulted in decreased grades, poor mental health, and feelings of isolation. Whether the experience of learning online was positive or negative was predominantly shaped by the capacity of the institution to provide access to high quality learning resources and the individual capability of teachers to create engaging online environments.

One resounding message across our findings was that, despite the awful circumstances, our sector’s response to supporting students during the pandemic offered unforeseen opportunities. While acknowledging the immense challenges and losses people faced, there were also many students who found new ways of studying which enhanced their experiences and outcomes. These benefits were articulated most strongly by students from minoritised backgrounds for some of whom access barriers to studying were removed by the shift to online learning. On the flip side, where students from minoritised backgrounds were not adequately supported in this way, the divide deepened. These are two sides of the same coin which we must keep in mind as we take our next steps.


Recommendations have been structured according to the levels of focus in our conceptual framework—the micro-, meso- and macro-environments which shape the higher education sector. Recommendations at each of these levels speak to different levels of practice within our institutions, such that all practitioners across levels in higher education can learn from our findings.

Micro-level recommendations

At the micro-level, for individual educators and staff who impact the lives of students, the following is recommended:

  1. Respond to disparate feelings of belonging and wellbeing.
  2. Maintain face-to-face learning for essential activities where possible.
  3. Transition new and expanded hybrid/hyflex/blended learning approaches to ‘business as usual’ to retain accessibility and flexibility in learning opportunities.
  4. Support the ongoing professional development of educators to continue to improve new ways of teaching and learning.

Meso-level recommendations

The following recommendations inform practice at the meso-level of institutions—for middle and senior managers and those in roles who speak to whole-of-institution strategy:

  1. Create tailored and accessible support mechanisms for students from minoritised and intersectional backgrounds that holistically consider learning, wellbeing, and financial situations.
  2. Ensure central communications are concise, personalised for segmented target cohorts, and conveyed through multiple communication modalities.
  3. Explore adapted approaches to decision-making and governance structures to meet the needs of different crisis stages.

Macro-level recommendations

The following macro-level recommendations are targeted at the entire higher education sector:

  1. Embed structures to facilitate cross-sector practice sharing and opportunities for sector level evaluation, reflection, and revision of protocols established during the pandemic to better prepare for future crises.
  2. Centre intersectionality as both a concept and method for engaging with and supporting students.
  3. Sustain student support changes made during the pandemic to (re)build our sector with an explicit focus on equity as core business for identity conscious higher education institutions.


Read the full report: Recommendations for equitable student support during disruptions to the higher education sector: Lessons from COVID-19

Read the higher education good practice guide: Equitable student support during times of crisis

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1University of Sydney
2Central Queensland University
3Charles Sturt University
4Colorado State University
5Flinders University
6Griffith University
7Latrobe University
8RMIT University
9University of Adelaide
10University of Glasgow
11University of South Australia
12University of Technology Sydney

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