More students in jobs as fewer travel first class on the university experience train

Last week saw a watershed moment in student stress with the release of the latest ‘Student Academic Experience Survey 2023’ report from AdvanceHE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). For the first time, since the surveys began over ten years ago, the proportion of students with part-time jobs during term time has exceeded 50%. Up till this year the clear majority were not working part-time during the term and this amounted to over one million students. Reported as 45% last year, the rise to 55% this year appears to have taken some observers by surprise. First Class and the rest permeates all our society and education is no stranger to this idea. The ‘two tier’ divide between those with time to study and those having to take jobs has been around for many years. But it appears that more students are being relegated to Tier 2 and this is put down to the rising cost-of-living crisis. Certainly, our universities must surely look at the issue more seriously as student study time takes a hit. But they cannot be expected to bear all the cost of offsetting student hours in work with more financial assistance. Only improved student support in general will ensure all students are afforded equal time to study. If ‘levelling up’ is a serious aim, then equal time to study and succeed is a good place to start with maintenance grants first on the list.

The survey results were a ‘surprise’.

The AdvanceHE/HEPI survey has been ongoing since 2012 and offers the most valuable and timely insight into trends in the lives and attitudes of university students. Between January and March of this year, 10,163 students from across the UK  in Savanta’s (formerly YouthSight) and Torfac’s student panels completed a detailed questionnaire. This provided a rich source of data about how things are changing and the increase in the proportion of students taking jobs in term time should not have come as a big surprise.

Deepening crisis.

TEFS has warned of a deepening crisis this year with ’Hold the front page: students must work longer and harder’ in January, ‘Student part-time jobs: arriving too late to the party’ in May and ‘Students working while hidden in plain view’ earlier this month. These come after multiple reports of the situation worsening over the years (see links to some of the TEFS reports in Footnote 1). Now we see the beginnings of a ‘train crash’ in student finances as families reel from the prospect of mortgage costs ballooning. Next year will be worse.

This mounting concern was also born out in a recent smaller survey by the Sutton trust for the BBC. This was completed by 2019 students on the ‘Cost of Living Crisis’. It rang the alarm bells back in March. The outcome was a stark reminder of the direction of travel.

Nearly half (49%) of undergraduate students “missed classes this academic year to do paid work”.  Two thirds of students reported they worked, with 20% working 16-30 hours per week and 6% over 30 hours per week.  This is a greater proportion than the recent survey but is generally consistent. Oddly, the time out of study imposition of a job affects students in all types of university and social background. Their conclusion is a call to urgently,

“Review the funding available to students for day to day living costs” and “reinstate maintenance grants, at a level reflecting increased costs of living since they were abolished in 2015”.

The TEFS view is that this is now vital to redress the imbalance in equality that lack of study time imposes. If most students lose too much time from learning, then our higher education standards will implode.

Nothing new and an issue for many years.

With the majority of students taking time out to work in term time, it seems observers in the media suddenly realised what is happening.  The Guardian quoted HEPI Director, Nick Hillman commenting,

“Everybody in the survey are full-time students so they should all be doing something similar to a full-time job…….If you’re doing 17 hours paid work or 20 hours paid work on top of that, that’s when it really affects your studies and it makes you more likely to drop out [and] less likely to do well in your degree.”

This may seem obvious to any observer now, but it has been the reality for many students over many years.  Yet university managements have turned a blind eye to the ‘problem’ and in 2020 TEFS reported that none had data  on  how many hours their students worked. See (TEFS 16th June 2020 ‘University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot’ and the Guardian ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’ .

What are the trends?

The current AdvanceHE/HEPI survey adds to the evidence that students working part-time is now embedded as ‘normal’ for most students. Diving deeper into the survey data reveals an ongoing trend and the current situation is therefore unsurprising.

Figure 1 shows the trend since 2012 with an increasing proportion of students taking jobs. There was a slight hiccup in the data from 2021 due to the pandemic lockdowns, but ‘normality’ resumed quickly.  This is noticeable across the survey data too. Using Office for National Statistics employment data, TEFS observed that the student job market did not collapse, but nevertheless there were around 75,000 jobs lost overall at that time.

The current Office for National Statistics (ONS) Employment and Labour Market data for full-time students in work, unemployed or economically inactive (see Footnote 2) is laid out in Figure 2. 

The data used is not seasonally adjusted and shows a clear ‘sawtooth pattern’ caused by a proportion of those students taking summer jobs and becoming economically active. Otherwise, many are not employed or ‘economically inactive’ at other times. The trend since 1992 has been upwards and it is notable that a significant number of students are unemployed and seeking work. However, the recent upturn in the number of students working in the survey data is not yet obvious in the ONS reports. But the ONS covers all full-time students whereas the AdvanceHE/HEPI and Sutton Trust surveys cover universities alone.

The number of hours working is rising.

The general trend over the years is towards students spending more hours in work each week. Figure 3 shows the mean number of hours reported in the survey. The AdvanceHE/HEPI reports highlight the overall mean number of hours that includes the significant number of students who say they are not working (blue). Stripping this data out of the survey reveals the mean number of hours worked by students in work (red).  This is more meaningful for those in work, has been rising for many years, and is now at a very concerning level.

The mean number of hours does not indicate the distribution around the mean that is even more revealing.

Figure 4 plots out the trend in the distribution up to 2022. It is the distribution plotted for students in work and excludes those not in work.

Again, there is a slow drift to a higher proportion of students working more hours above 16 hours per week. This is the recommended limit set by most universities to avoid impacting on their studies. However, international students are allowed to work up to 20 hours per week as a condition of their visas and this is now becoming the norm for many students. With even more students entering the job market this academic year, it is expected that the numbers working excessive hours will have increased.

Of particular concern is the observation made by TEFS in 2019 that commuting students tend to work much longer hours and lose even more time to travelling (see TEFS 23rd August 2023 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’). But, with accommodation costs rising, many will now choose to stay at home and commute. They will try to soldier on with the same jobs they held down while at school.  But that’s another story.


The survey results this year should have come as no surprise. The last ten years or so of austerity have seen many families and students facing difficult choices with more seeking employment all year round. Some of these are bordering on full-time employment, mounting up to excessive hours of combined studying and working.  Now the ongoing inflation and money pressures will exacerbate further the time differential between those with time to study and those with jobs. This accentuates a ‘Two Tier’ system with the advantaged travelling ‘First Class’ on the gravy train to success.  It’s not equal and it’s not fair and some levelling up is urgently needed.

The last word goes to one student in this year’s survey,

“The cost of living is crippling and having to work to pay bills while studying is a nightmare.”

Indeed, it is, and it has been going on for far too long.

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

Acknowledgement: TEFS thanks Jonathan Neves and colleagues at Advance HE and HEPI for openly releasing the combined survey data

Footnote 1.

TEFS has particularly highlighted the situation with excessive hours in part-time jobs. More recently in July 2022 with, ‘Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter’. The evidence of a ‘two tier’ system, dividing those with time and resources from those with little of both, is overwhelming as illustrated here.

Footnote 2.

Office for National Statistics
Note: Not in full-time education includes people in part-time education and/or some form of training. Estimates of the number of young people who are not in employment, education or training.
People in full-time education are employed if they have a part-time job or unemployed if they are looking for part-time employment. The denominator = all persons in the relevant age group for economically active, total in employment and economically inactive; economically active for unemployment.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: