Hold the front page: students must work longer and harder

A report in the Times today, ‘PM’s foreign student plan to shore up economy; Increase in working hours to plug job vacancies’, has certainly raised a few eyebrows in our universities. It reveals a reckless disregard for the time needed by students to complete their studies successfully. The idea that bolstering low pay employment for the economy, above that of fairness and equality in education, says more about the blind ignorance of a minister than anything else. Forcing disadvantaged students out to work longer hours is happening already through eroded maintenances funds. But forcing well heeled ‘middle-class’ students out to work part-time will simply not work. They have too much to lose.

The news that this might happen is part of a wider plan to get economically inactive people back to work. It comes hot on the heels of a TEFS report earlier this week on maintenance funding, ‘When student hardship hits the funding fan’.

The issue was raised mostly because many over 50s had not returned to work after the pandemic lockdowns.  However, even a cursory look at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) data would have revealed that a significant number of economically inactive people are students.  This will be the fortunate students who can devote more time to their social life and studies.

How many hours can a student work -part time.

There isn’t a simple answer. It depends on the job and the commuting involved. Indeed, commuting students often work longer hours (TEFS 23rd August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’).

There is some evidence that working over 10 to 12 hours per week in term time impacts on studies and success. One study in 2008 by Claire Callender of University College London, Institute of Education,  ‘The impact of term‐time employment on higher education students’ academic attainment and achievement’,  concluded that, “Just engaging in term-time employment is likely to depress students’ degree results”. This is simply an effect of diverting time. 

UCAS comments on this in advice that says time should be limited to 15 hours per week. This is mirrored in advice to students by universities across the sector.  In contrast, students from outside the UK are limited to a maximum of 20 hours per week.  But many universities also have employment hubs that match students to campus jobs and employers nearby.  They seem to default at 20 hours per week.  I have spoken to some who seem to think 20 hours is the general limit despite the institution’s official advice of 15 or 16 hours.

Striding into the issue.

In steps Mel Stride onto ‘thin ice’ with size twelve boots and the idea that up to 30 hours should be encouraged.  This is intended to align with the generally accepted cut off from part-time to full-time. The UK defines the number of hours per week as part time work as up to 30 hours. Most countries use the same cut off and OECD data  from 2021 shows  that 21.7% of the UK workforce are in part-time employment.

Like most of the government, Stride has little experience of the demands of most university education. I taught science for 36 years and observed the gradual erosion of learning driven by loss of time to part-time jobs. His idea of making this worse is astounding but might reflect his own experience as a PPE graduate from Oxford. He must learn that many degrees are driven by professional demands that must not be watered down

His naïve views were amply displayed in an article he penned for the Mid-Devon Advertiser in, ‘Boosting local economic activity’ earlier this month. Tasked with “reducing economic inactivity”, he was quick to spot in ONS data that “around nine million people who are economically inactive”. He divides these into four categories: early retirees, parents and carers, and long-term sick and disabled.  The fourth is comprised of “Students (40 per cent do not have a part-time job either at university or during holidays)”.

It appears he thinks it is OK for all to be targeted with, “I will be looking at what the government can do right across the board”. Students become a convenient target when he spotted that the data shows, ‘The vast majority – one million – of students have no employment when in full-time studies’.  This is an interesting interpretation of levelling down.

The reaction.

The Times reports that universities are non too happy about the suggestion.  Their reaction also marks a turning point in how they might defend their students in future. The ‘blind spot’ they have about the two tier system, that divides those with more time to study from those in part-time jobs, may have magically disappeared.  Whilst welcoming to some extent that the move might attract more students, they note that academics were “cognisant that too many working hours isn’t good for study”. They also note that academic administrators fear it will create an “uneven playing field” where the affluent have more time for studies”. 

What is going on?

The number of hours worked by students has been something that most universities have failed to see as important for too long. TEFS issued a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to all UK universities in 2020 to find they did not hold any data on this. Reported in the Guardian in June 2020 , ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’ and TEFS, ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot’)

All surveys of university students, and the Office for National statistics data, reveal around 60% of students devote some hours per week to part-time work. While the average for all students tends to hover around 10 to 12 hours per week, the wide distribution is more revealing.  There are some working over 30 hours per week and many over 20 hours. This has persisted for many years with a steady shift to longer hours since 2012 reported by TEFS 19th July 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Overall pattern across the UK’.  The student job market did not totally collapse during the pandemic as students adapted to take on other roles, often working from home and taking advantage of the more flexible online regime.

The latest data  from the ONS last week confirms Stride’s observation that many students do not have jobs. But Stride’s idea that he can force well heeled ‘middle-class’ students out to work part-time will not work. Some might work a few hours to save for a summer break, but most will not. Instead, the least advantaged will simply work more hours to eat.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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