A job to make ends meet: Students on shrinking grants are waiting at tables when they should be reading Wittgenstein. Stephen Pritchard reports

Students may always plead poverty, but faced with the reduction in the value of the grant and rising rents and hall fees, more and more are being forced to neglect Wittgenstein and take up waiting at tables. For many, part-time work is vital if they are to stay at college.

Growing fears about the impact this has on academic standards are recognised by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), which will include questions on term-time work in a survey of student income and expenditure this summer. Lecturers are having to accept that part-time work is a fact of student life, and many universities are seeking ways to limit its impact on academic performance.

'We are concerned about how much term-time working is going on,' says Dr Kenneth Edwards, chairman of the CVCP. 'I suspect it is quite considerable, and growing. While a small amount of work may not be harmful, beyond a certain limit it might be. There is no collective view that it's wrong for students to work during term, but in some cases it has a deleterious effect on studies.'

An insight into the scale of the problem comes from research commissioned last year by Oxford Brookes University. It suggested that term-time employment is now the norm rather than the exception. According to Dr Roger Lindsay, one of the report's authors, as many as 57 per cent of second- and higher-year students at the university may be working on a regular basis. The report estimates that as many as 250 students annually graduate with degrees a class lower than that they would have gained had they not worked.

'The number of students failing modules was three times greater among those who worked,' Dr Lindsay says. 'The cost of financing those modules, over the university as a whole, could be close to pounds 1m. Students suffer because academic performance is retarded; institutions suffer because of the knock-on costs. The assumption by government that reducing resources for students has no implications for institutions is nave. It has very real costs to individuals, the community and institutions.'

The report recommends easing the difficulties, for example with flexible timetabling so that fewer classes are missed because of work. Another approach is for institutions to offer vacancies of their own to students.

At Cardiff University, a student employment agency, Unistaff, has been operating for three years. Each year, about 500 students are found work. The college believes that by offering jobs on campus, with standardised pay and conditions and a 15-hour upper limit on the time worked, the disadvantages can be minimised.

'We recognised that a significant number of students are working anyway in casual employment throughout Cardiff,' says Alastair McDougall, personnel director. 'By offering something controllable ourselves, we are able to head off some of the problems.'

The types of jobs offered include catering, clerical and cleaning, as well as work in the library or in offices. In time, Unistaff also hopes to provide work that enhances the CV as well as reducing overdrafts.

'By far the majority of work we can give is basic, casual work,' says Mr McDougall. 'The challenge is to try to use students in jobs more suitable to people of their ability.'

Last week, Sheffield University opened a pilot student employment agency called Tempus. The director of the careers advisory service, Dr Bernard Kingston, had seen similar schemes operating abroad, especially in Australia and the United States. But the venture was given a head start by the local Employment Service, which approached him to provide students for temporary vacancies they were unable to fill from their own registers. So far, 200 students have found work this way, and Tempus will continue to advertise JobCentre openings alongside other jobs.

Tempus will concentrate on work outside the university. Dr Kingston's initial research found potential demand from shopping complexes and hotels in the city, while vacancies channelled through the Employment Service have ranged from gardening to security. As at Cardiff, Tempus will have a 15-hour weekly working limit. 'There is anxiety about detracting from studies,' acknowledges Dr Kingston, 'but there are more problems with anxiety from debt. If we can relieve that in a controlled way, it is to the students' advantage.'

While employment bureaux can be a lifeline for some students, it is unrealistic to expect them to solve the wider problem of student hardship. Kirstie Shannon, who as academic and welfare secretary of Sheffield University's student union is on the Tempus steering group, agrees. 'It does not make up for a lack of funding. A student on a full grant gets less than someone on income support. It is a fact of life that students are looking for work. If they have no money they can do worse because of worry than because of working. If students are working very long hours, it will affect their courses, but equally, so will hardship.'

(Photograph omitted)

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