The cost of learning: low paid jobs and food banks

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” 

The inscription on the Statue of Liberty might have some resonance for UK universities about to enter another academic year. Too many students will have to endure low paid work, poverty, hunger and even homelessness to enter the world of the modern university. The crisis is mounting but at least it is gaining more traction as a political worry. The cost to level up the ‘playing field’ would be a minimum of £2.3 to £3.3 billion per year to support students who lose study time to term-time employment. This is too much to ask of universities trapped in the current financial arrangements. Something has to give soon.

Two reports and a debate.

Two reports and a debate in the last few days have turned up the heat on a ‘two-track’ system of higher education. Earlier in the summer, at the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) annual summer symposium in Exeter, the Shadow Higher Education Minister, Matt Western agreed with me that we now have a ‘two-track’ system divided between those who have time to study and those holding down part-time jobs. See TEFS 14th July 2023 ‘Wake up and smell the coffee: shining NEON light on widening access and participation’).

This is now coming into sharp focus as we move toward the start of term for students.  A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) last week concluded that 27% of universities now operated food banks.

Following this week was a debate in Westminster Hall,  ‘Impact of increases in the cost of living on further and higher education students’ and a detailed briefing from the House of Commons Library, ‘Impact of increases in the cost of living on further and higher education students’, further emphasising the rising crisis. 

This comes on the back of earlier reports from the All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) for students and for FE and Lifelong Learning, ‘Report of the Inquiry into the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on students’ in March 2023 and ‘The impact of the cost-of-living crisis in further education’ in July 2023.

Some of the opening statement yesterday from MP Paul Blomfield summed up the situation well.

He saw the situation about students in part-time work as a sudden rise. However, it is a problem for students that has been steadily rising for over twelve years.  It is only now that the issue is gaining traction. It may be a surprise to some now, but it’s a sad inevitability to others teaching students.

The food bank scandal and cash payments.

That we have food banks in many of our universities in 2023 must surely be a major wake up call for the government to realise that something is very wrong.

The report from Matt Freeman of the Higher Education Policy Institute last week, ‘How to beat the cost of learning crisis’ (pdf) revealed a deepening crisis engulfing many students across the UK.  It looked closely at the provisions for support made by 140 universities across the UK.

The majority (76%) offered help with food. Many offered discounts with vouchers (11%) and food banks (27%).  Unexpected was 33% of the Russell Group universities operating food banks.

It also uncovered a sobering reality of hardship funds and direct payments to students to back up food relief.  The idea of them being ‘providers’ took on a new meaning.  While no one found this a surprise, the scale of the problem was astounding.  The University of Manchester doled out £170 to all students and a further £340 for those in greatest need.  Queens University Belfast took similar action while many others have seen a rise in hardship funding.

If the Manchester figure of £170 for all students was replicated across the UK, this would amount to £294,916,850 in total.  A staggering sum that would be hard for universities to bear. But even that might not be enough.

Students working in term-time.

The House of Commons Library briefing rightly highlighted the extent of students in employment in term-time. But the commons debate relied mostly on the evidence from a survey by the Sutton Trust back in March 2023, ‘New polling on the impact of the cost of living crisis on students’. This was done with the BBC and was completed by 2,019 students.

Not cited was the more extensive 2023 HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey 2023 of 10,163 students that came to similar conclusions. It found that many more students are now in paid employment; 55% in 2023 versus 45% in 2022. We might expect that even more will  seek work or try to increase their hours in the coming year (see TEFS 29th June 2023 ‘More students in jobs as fewer travel first class on the university experience train).

The impact on students of time lost to learning.

The HEPI report last week cited some evidence from an earlier report in 2018 by Tim Blackman, ‘What affects how much students learn?’.  He analysed in depth the survey data from 2017 and concluded that students should avoid “high levels of paid work (above 17 hours a week)”.  This matches the limits recommended by most universities. Although international students are permitted to work  for up to 20 hours per week.

However, the conclusions are based upon student  perceptions and their responses in the survey.  My experience has been that all part-time work impacts study time and, depending on other circumstances such as commuting or caring, anything over 10 hours per week can be detrimental.  Earlier studies and advice confirm this effect.

In 2008 Claire Callender reported on a study of 1000 students in six UK universities (‘The Impact of Term-time Employment on Higher Education Students’ Academic Attainment and Achievement’. January 2008, Journal of Education Policy 23(4)).

This may still be the most rigorous study of the issue to date, and it opened up some alarming observations. It showed clearly that part-time work during term had a detrimental effect on both final year marks and degree results. The conclusion that,

“Students working the average number of hours a week were a third less likely to get a good degree than an identical non-working student. Some of the least qualified and poorest students are most adversely affected perpetuating existing inequalities in higher education”,

confirmed earlier recommendations.

Back in 2001, the Select Committee on Education and Employment, in its very detailed Post-16 Student Support sixth report, recommended that,

“Students should not undertake more than 12 hours of paid work a week in term-time”.

Assuming the same curriculum burden for students applies today, then this recommendation ought to hold.  However, there is a suspicion that the curricula in university degrees are being watered down to accommodate student availability.  This has manifest itself in universities seeking to restrict courses to three-day weeks (The Observer 16th August 2023 ‘UK universities offer three-day-week to let students find part-time work’).

There is no ducking out of the fact that this has serious implications for the extent of the curriculum, and especially in STEM subjects.

The cost of rebalancing the student experience.

With increasing numbers of students seeking to work in term-time, the cost in lost time to study is bound to be felt.  The question then arises about what it would cost to subsidise students to reduce their working hours to something more reasonable.

According to the latest figures from Universities UK (Higher education in numbers – ), there were 1,734,805 undergraduate students in the UK in 2021/22.  Analysis of the data collected from the Advance HE/HEPI Student Experience Survey 2023 indicates that the proportion of undergraduate students working 17 hours and above per week in the last academic year (mean 27 hours per week) was just over 16%.  This amounts to 278,436  undergraduate students.  Assuming they are in university for 40 weeks, and are paid the minimum wage for 18- to 20-year-olds (£7.49), the total cost to offset this with financial help would come to around £2.3 billion per year.

However, for the 29% of students working 12 hours or more per week (mean 21.4 hours per week), the cost to offset this would come to around £3.3 billion per year.

This is a staggering sum that partly unveils the additional contribution of ‘full time’ students to the economy. It is certain the universities could not pick up the tab under the current financial arrangements. The assumption must also be that for other the students not burdened by part-time work in term-time, the cost is borne by their families.

There are no easy solutions to the imbalances that fuel a perverse ‘two-track’ system.  With the sixtieth anniversary of the Robbins of  Report of the Committee on Higher Education coming up this October, we  might reflect that this was not really so long ago.  In such a short time, have we really changed the principle to,

Higher education “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment”. Subject to terms and conditions and the ability of their families to support them.

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

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