Student part-time jobs: arriving too late to the party

It seems many universities have started to arrive late to the ‘party’ of students in part-time jobs.  Last week, Tom Williams wrote in Times Higher Education that the ‘Rise in working students ‘should prompt a radical teaching rethink’.  He observed that the “cost-of-living crisis has driven many more to find paid work alongside studies, with universities reassessing practices as a result”. But this has been an issue for students over many years and universities have been very slowly adjusting.

TEFS started highlighting the problem of some students taking too much time out from their studies in term back in 2017 with a review of the impact of part-time jobs on attainment (TEFS 24th October 2017 ‘One casualty is one too many’).  The author had seen the problems rising inexorably over his 37 years teaching in a university. The combination of fewer hours of teaching was exacerbated by a sharp rise in student numbers.

That it is getting worse doesn’t detract from the fact that a minority of students study under a significant disadvantage.  The ‘solution’ shouldn’t mean that universities tailor their teaching to fit around students spending more time in work. This leads to a dilution of the education on offer for all students, and further erosion of time spent studying is a cop out.  In many science, engineering and medical subjects, it could even become dangerous. Instead, we should see a strict maximum limit to the number of hours worked matched by better financial assistance to ensure all students get a fair and equal crack at their studies.

Most universities actively promote part-time job opportunities, often up to 20 hours per week and over their recommended number of hours. There are numerous job agencies and even Save the Student has a searchable site for openings. It has become part of the framework of our university experience that is alien to the prevailing political leadership.

What are the problems?

There are two fundamental problems underpinning the idea that students need part-time jobs to finance their studies at a university.

Firstly, there is an inherent inequality where students take jobs that eat into their time to study and precious time to take advantage of networking and socialising.  These students are less likely to reach their full academic potential and gain less from the university ‘experience’.

Secondly, some universities are adjusting their timetables to accommodate students working shifts during the week. This may mean concentrating lectures, practicals and tutorials into single days in what turns out to be a punishing schedule. The students with no jobs, in many universities the majority, are left kicking their heels. The result is that everybody loses out.

Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) observed in the Times Higher article this week that,

“Rather than a scenario where students are choosing a course and place of study and fitting part-time work around that, it is increasingly the other way around”. 

This is an alarming, if not a sorry, conclusion.

What is going on?

Back in January, TEFS responded critically to assertions from government that students could plug the employment shortfall by working more hours as part of a wider plan to get economically inactive people back to work (TEFS 27th January 2023 ‘Hold the front page: students must work longer and harder’).

This followed hot on the heels of another TEFS report earlier the same week on a inadequate maintenance funding, ‘When student hardship hits the funding fan’.

Yet many students from better off backgrounds do not have jobs and recent ONS data confirms this inequality persists. The idea that those students can be forced 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 of their peers will simply work even more hours to eat.

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.

My experience of part-time working from a school age, and working in every break, back in the 1970s led me to the conclusion that I had bypassed my youth and progressed to adulthood far too quickly. Friends took advantage of InterRail pass trips around Europe while I missed out on a social life and widening horizons.  This was not ‘imposter syndrome’, for me that doesn’t exist, but simply exclusion on financial grounds. To quote Kelly Quindlen from ‘Late to the Party’,

“You realize you still haven’t become a real teenager, and maybe you never will.”

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

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