Lessons at the school of waiting tables: Working while studying

Rising fees are forcing more students into part-time working while they study. David Robotham reports

The number of full-time higher education students with part-time jobs rose by 54 per cent, to 630,778, between 1996 and 2006, according to the Trades Union Congress. It is not easy, however, to be certain about the scale of part-time employment as there is no formal requirement for institutions to record how many students are working to make ends meet.

But what does it mean for their studies? Evidence suggests that there are potential benefits to be gained, such as enhanced employability through the acquisition of work-related skills. But there is also evidence that negative consequences ensue. Students say they spend less time studying, miss classes or arrive late, and have fewer hours for recreation.

Evidence of more serious consequences, such as late submission of assessments, failing classes or dropping out of university altogether, is cited less frequently in research findings.

Official guidance suggests that students should devote no more than 20 hours a week to part-time work, though the rationale behind this limit is not always clear. But researchers are increasingly finding that individuals are spending as much time, and in some cases significantly more, at work than in the lecture room. This begins to question the notion of the fulltime student, and raises the issue of how “full” is full-time? If a student is funded on the principle that engagement in higher education is the central element of their activities, what happens when studying is relegated to a secondary activity, in terms of hours?

If students no longer satisfy the criteria required to be classed as full-time, will funding to the sector be reduced even further?

A second issue is the implication of an expanding part-time student workforce for those who champion widening participation – an issue gaining even more currency given the impending tripling of student fees. Under the existing funding regime, financial pressures are most often cited as the driver towards term-time working. As the financial burden shifts further on to students’ shoulders, it seems reasonable to contend that patterns of student employment will only increase.

This may have negative consequences for academic study, and precipitate a decline in participation by students from the socio-economic groups targeted by initiatives aimed at widening participation.

There is also an important policy consideration for higher-education providers about how they respond to full-time undergraduates for whom hours spent in jobs may be greater than hours spent studying. A simple solution might be to revisit existing financial-support packages, and to factor in an element that takes into account potential pressures to carry out term-time employment. A more contentious proposal is that universities consider revising the typical full-time timetable to a pattern more conducive to parttime employment: for example, offering evening classes.

Until now, however, most commentators have avoided the elephant in the room when talking about student employment – social class. While some say we have increasingly shifted towards a meritocratic society, this somewhat idealistic view glosses over the realities of higher education.

The student term-time workforce will perhaps continue to be divided into those want to work part-time and those who need to.

David Robotham is a lecturer in organisational behaviour at De Montfort University in Leicester