Student finance: A little work goes a long way

Getting a job at university can make all the difference, just don't forget to study

For Laura Lea, working part-time while studying for her English literature degree at King's College London was inevitable. With her student loan barely covering the high living costs in the capital, she knew that without some form of part-time work she would be graduating with large debts.

"I would not have had any money had I not worked," explains Lea, who chose to work through her entire degree, first as a waitress and then as an assistant at the Wimbledon Bookfest. "The money I earned helped cover some everyday costs and pay for my social life."

Education doesn't come cheap. While the rising cost of tuition fees has been well-documented, the increases associated with living expenses have received less media coverage.

Accommodation is more expensive than ever, while higher than average inflationary increases on food and travel have left students at a disadvantage. The Open University estimates that in July 2008 the rate of inflation for full-time students was 6.6 per cent – 2.2 per cent higher than the official measure of inflation at the time.

Course fees, books and equipment, and living costs combine to create a bill of around £16,850 a year for students, says the National Union of Students (NUS), which estimates that once the maximum amount of funding available has been taken into account, the average student is left with a shortfall of £7,800.

Working is one way to minimise the impact of this on credit cards and overdrafts. Indeed, some 53 per cent of students work during term time, according to the most up-to-date government figures from a Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills report in 2007. It's a figure that keeps rising over time – a report by the NUS and Trades Union Congress estimates that 54 per cent more students were forced to find part-time employment to pay for their education in 2006 than they had 10 years earlier.

So what sort of job opportunities are available to students? "The type of roles available will depend on where a student lives and how big the town or city is where the university is located," says Jamie O'Connell, marketing director at The Student Room, an online forum and advice centre for people in further and higher education. "The university or student union might have employment opportunities in the bars and cafés, or might need students to promote social nights by distributing flyers," he says. "However, there is also the option to freelance from home. The website Studentgems is a place where students and graduates can put up a portfolio of work. Employers then look for the skills they need and use individuals on a casual basis. They get cheap labour while the student gets experience and income."

Students can also turn to recruitment agencies and websites, such as Reed, Manpower, Studentjobs4U and Employment4Students, which place people in temporary jobs, while those who don't want to commit to regular shifts can find work via agencies such as the Esprit Group, which specialises in placing individuals in hospitality and events roles.

However, one of the best places for students to find work will be through an institution's own careers office, says Pete Mercer, vice-president of welfare at the NUS. "There will be a careers service within a university that is likely to incorporate a job shop or jobs board of some description," he explains. "It will also probably organise a job fair at the beginning of the academic year. Local companies will go to these fairs looking for students for current or future vacancies."

How deep the dent will be in levels of debt depends entirely on the job and company. At the very least it will be the national minimum wage of £4.98 per hour for 18- to 20-year-olds and £6.08 per hour for workers aged 21 and over (£6.19 from October 2012), while some students have been known to earn much more, says Mercer.

However, he adds the caveat that students should be wary of taking on too many shifts as a means of generating more income.

"It is not advisable to work any more than 15 to 20 hours a week as studies have shown it could impact negatively on degree results," he says.

This was precisely what happened to Becky Naylor, who worked throughout her first year at university. As with Lea, she found that once her rent, transport and food had been paid for out of her student loan, she had virtually nothing left. She got herself a job in a bar, working 16 hours a week for just under £100.

"Working did provide me with financial independence and a social life, but I found it difficult to fit it in around my studies," she reflects. "I would leave university after a full day at around 5.30pm and then work until midnight. It often meant I couldn't do the work required for the following day and I was always tired. I stopped working after my first year as I didn't want to compromise my degree."

While it's important for work not to negatively impact on studies, there are more benefits than simply keeping debt levels to a minimum. It can also help pay it off more quickly once graduated. How? Students can use their valuable experience to boost their job prospects, says Brian Dwane, director of Broadstone Resourcing.

"It is a highly competitive market at present and students need to do everything they can to stay one step ahead," he says. "Bar work and admin jobs can help develop soft skills such as good communication and ability to work alongside others, but what's even better is if you've worked in roles related to your degree, which shows you have initiative, drive and are career-focused."

Laura Lea agrees. She believes that her part-time role at the Wimbledon Bookfest played a key role in her being accepted to do a Masters in journalism at Cardiff University.

"I've benefited financially as I would definitely have finished by maximising my overdraft had I not got a job, but my CV is also looking really strong now," she enthuses. "The team at the Bookfest took the time to train me which has given me lots of really useful experience, not just in office skills but in the arts and media. Working while studying has definitely made a big difference to my future."

Seven Tricks for Budget Balancing

Buy before you try

Don't leave yourself a list of things to buy when you arrive – bring as much as you can with you (preferably paid for by your parents). Your student loan can seem huge at first, but alcohol, toiletries and takeaways will quickly dent it .

Get your math on

Listen when you are told to work out a sensible daily budget. It's boring and lots of students give up, but just knowing your limits will help you keep tabs on your spending (and avoid going into your overdraft).

Let's all chip in

No, let's not. Getting money back for "joint" ventures is difficult, especially if you've left it a few days in the vain hope they'd remember. It's even harder when it's a small amount per person – but £1 debts add up and you'll find yourself out of pocket.

Timing is paramount

Try to synchronise big spends with incoming funds. Anticipate large outgoings, like event tickets or special nights out, and budget for them in advance. Also, if you're going to run out of shower gel, do it in the holidays so you can use the family supply.

Here's one I bought earlier

If you know you're going out, buy a cheap snack from the supermarket for those inevitable post-lash munchies. Takeaway shops smell great but charge a fortune; doner and chips is much less tempting when you think about the 69p sausage roll saved in your fridge.

Location, location, location

Specifically, locate that supermarket stomping ground for skint students everywhere: the reduced aisle. You might come out with onion bhajis when you went in for a Müller corner, but at 37p who's complaining?

Golden ticket

Don't forget your student card. Ever. It will get you discounts on all sorts of things, from clothes and shopping to cinema trips and museums (not that anyone ever goes to those). It's a free pass to saving money.

Jordan Harries has just finished the first year of a combined arts degree at Durham University

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