Study, earn and prosper

Is it bad for undergraduates to take part-time jobs while at university? Critics say it detracts from their studies. But increasingly students themselves are finding that a campus job prepares them for work. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

Around one-half - and in some universities up to 70 per cent-- of students are doing paid work during term-time to fund their studies. They are busying themselves with anything from a job in the university library to selling ties in Next or flipping burgers in McDonald's. Is this a bad thing, as critics suggest, that puts a burden on young people and detracts from academic work? Or does it help them to improve their self-confidence and to structure their lives?

Around one-half - and in some universities up to 70 per cent-- of students are doing paid work during term-time to fund their studies. They are busying themselves with anything from a job in the university library to selling ties in Next or flipping burgers in McDonald's. Is this a bad thing, as critics suggest, that puts a burden on young people and detracts from academic work? Or does it help them to improve their self-confidence and to structure their lives?

The evidence is that a certain amount of paid employment is good for students, helping them to get out of bed in the morning and to get in touch with the real world outside the seminar room. But too many hours spent stacking the supermarket shelves or flipping burgers can take away from valuable study time.

According to the preliminary findings of an as yet unpublished survey carried out for Universities UK in 2002, students said term-time work did affect them, with 43 per cent saying they produced poor quality assignments occasionally as a result of having to undertake paid employment. And eight out of 10 students of the 1,500 responding said that their paid work ate into the time available for reading and working independently.

But the same research also showed that a part-time job could benefit undergraduates, giving them transferable skills - the ability to communicate, make presentations and work in teams - that employers want. One-quarter of students said that their job helped them use their time better.

According to Janet Dickerson, manager of the Student JobShop at Essex University and chair of the Association of Student Employment Services, there are a lot of benefits to students working for money. "More and more employers are insisting that graduates have work experience," she says. "These part-time jobs provide that work experience."

Alison Hughes, who runs the Student Employment Learning Forum, a body funded by government and designed to improve the quality of job advice for students, agrees. "Graduates need to have something else to put on their curriculum vitae apart from their degree," she says.

Students take part-time jobs for a host of reasons, she adds. Some do it to meet people and make friends, particularly if they are not living in a hall of residence. Others, meanwhile, look for work as a way of gaining references and networking with an eye to their future career.

Some students even find that it can lead to a career (see box, below). For example, students working for retail chains such as Tesco may be employed for up to 20 hours a week during term-time. In the holidays this part-time job may turn into a full-time position. The company will get to know the students well. As a result the undergraduates can find themselves promoted at the end of their first year to supervisory posts. And by the time they graduate they may have moved to a management job. Ladbroke's is one company that has developed a formal scheme to take graduates on as managers who have previously worked for them as students.

A sign of how developed the student job market has become is the existence today of 108 job shops on campuses around the country to match students to vacancies. The first opened at Cardiff University in 1990 at a time when finding work during term-time was becoming important because of the whittling away of the grant and the introduction of loans.

Now the job shops have developed schemes with companies to enable students to move from their work at home with a chain store like Next to a similar job at a Next store in their university town and back again in the vacations. Research from America confirms the benefits. A study by Professor Stephen Heyneman of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee found that teenagers who worked used their time more wisely and had better motivation and more self-esteem than those who did not. Although their academic scores were lower, Heyneman found that American young people were more able to adapt to employment than workers from other countries because they had worked as teenagers.

Alexander Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, believes that working on campus is beneficial, especially if the work is related to the student's field. And Professor Vincent Tinto, of Syracuse University, found lower drop-out rates for students working part-time. Other research has found that, far from harming academic performance, working 10 to 20 hours a week actually improves performance and persistence.

Higher education experts in the UK advise that students should work no more than 15 hours a week in term-time, although that figure is now being revised upwards to 20 hours a week because of new rules saying that overseas students may work for that long. Paul Cullinan, of Pulse, Liverpool University's JobShop, says that his agency, like the others, tries to keep track of students' hours to ensure they don't overstep the mark. "But students seem to accept nowadays that working while studying is a fact of life," he says.

For Mike Hill, the chief executive of Graduate Prospects (formerly the Careers Services Unit), a job is particularly important for non-traditional students (those who wouldn't have gone to university previously) because they are less well funded than traditional students.

A part-time job can make all the difference between dropping out and completing a degree. "It's also a fantastic way for employers to cut their costs of recruitment and improve their retention rates. They know the student and the student knows them. Where's the risk?"

The vital thing is that people should be able to reflect on their part-time job and decide what lessons they have learnt from it, says Richard Brown, who runs the Council for Higher Education and Industry. "Only if you can write down the different experiences you have had and articulate what you have learnt is it really useful."

education@independent.co.uk

'I'M GLAD I WORKED - IT HELPED ME TO BE MORE ORGANISED'

Anthony McEachran, 22, has just finished a degree in American studies at Essex University, gaining an upper second. He worked during the entire four years, first for Next and finally for Tesco, with a year in between at the University of California at Los Angeles where he worked for the UCLA shop selling university merchandise. He took out a student loan each year and received some help from his parents.

"I wanted my independence. I was very aware that people went to university and sponged and left with a degree and nothing else, and I didn't want to do that. When I went to Essex I had been working for Next in Solihull where I live so I transferred to the store's branch in Colchester. During my first year I took another job with the students' union so I was working about 22 hours a week. I earned £300 to £350 a month which helped me with my entertainment expenses and to run a car. The job in the UCLA store enabled me to pay for travel to San Francisco and Las Vegas. And in my final year back at Essex I was doing 25 to 30 hours a week at Tesco.

"They promoted me and have now offered me a graduate management traineeship. But I'm not going to take it because I want to do a Masters degree in human rights. I'm glad I worked because it helped me to be more organised. It shows to employers that you are capable of doing more than one thing at a time. You have developed interpersonal skills and know how to cope in an interview. I'm not too worried now about what is going to happen to me in the future."

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