Bemoaning students’ need to work is short-sighted and counterproductive

Students see benefits to paid work beyond the money, but they would welcome help in advocating for better pay and conditions, say six academics

April 15, 2024
A tired student waitress
Source: iStock/Dejan_Dundjerski

Concerns have been mounting that students are being driven into paid work by the cost-of-living crisis – and, therefore, are being diverted away from their studies, as well as extracurricular activities.

News stories abound of lecturers bewildered by empty lecture halls as students are “forced…to prioritise paid work over attending classes” and “take on more hours in their part-time jobs”. In the UK, the government and sector bodies appear increasingly concerned, leading to numerous reports, surveys and an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Students.

As a team leading a major national study into “earning while learning”, we have been analysing national datasets and speaking to women students in schools, colleges and universities across England. Through this research, we have become alert to the significance of the paid work undertaken by students, both to the wider economy and to students’ own lives and understandings of “decent” work.

Although we recognise the temptation to blame student work for some of the problems seen in educational outcomes and attendance, our data reveal that the current conversation is beset by a series of assumptions and blind spots that take us away from addressing more urgent priorities for student workers.

First, claims that university students are “driven” into paid work by the cost-of-living crisis implies that student employment is a new phenomenon. In reality, student employment – while rising steadily – has been a commonplace feature of many students’ lives over the past two decades, with approximately 60 per cent of full-time university students in England engaging in some form of paid work.

Moreover, students don’t simply discover jobs at university. Rather, most arrive with significant experience of earning while learning. Our analysis shows that most school- and college-age students engage in paid work. Along with university students, these young workers constitute up to 20 per cent of the labour force in some sectors, such as hospitality and retail.

This brings us to the second assumption. Current debates seem preoccupied with the negative impacts of paid work on student engagement, attendance and outcomes (both in terms of well-being and education). Although these problems are not to be dismissed, the students we have spoken to regard paid work as holding broader value and meaning in their lives and journeys into adulthood.

Money is, of course, an important driver, but our interviewees also reflected on how their jobs provided a sense of independence, enabled social connections and friendships, and helped them build skills and competencies that they regarded as valuable for their futures. That is not to say that students do not encounter difficulties at work or undertake work that they would rather not do. But students view these experiences – of rude customers, unfair managers and, sometimes, gender discrimination and harassment – as equipping them with the kinds of “real-world” experience that so many employers and commentators claim that Gen-Z workers lack.

Lastly, the debate around rising student employment stops short of interrogating the actual work that students do and their working conditions. Our research, as well as that of others, tells us that student workers are concentrated in sectors that the economy relies upon, which are some of the lowest-paid and most insecure. Our interviewees talked about feeling exploited in terms of poor pay and long hours, while their sense of being disposable and replaceable made it hard for them to demand better pay and conditions.

English higher education requires a fundamental reappraisal of student funding. Until this happens, the conversation needs to be redirected away from the narrow goal of eliminating student work towards strategies for making students’ lives more liveable, both as students and as workers.

We must urgently support better conditions for student workers, including ensuring fair pay, job security and a discrimination-free workplace. Better pay could mean that students have to work for fewer hours to keep their heads above water. But, more than that, improving the labour rights of student workers must be part of a wider reckoning with the intergenerational inequalities faced by students in England, who are experiencing a real-terms decline in the value of maintenance loans, the abolition of maintenance grants, spiralling housing costs and regressive student loan reforms.

This article was written by the research team of the ESRC-funded study “L-earning: rethinking young women’s working lives” (@ywworking), led by Kim Allen, associate professor in social inequalities at the University of Leeds; Kate Hardy, professor of global labour at Leeds; Kirsty Finn, senior lecturer in education at the University of Manchester; Rachel Cohen, professor in sociology, work and employment at City, University of London; Cassie Kill, research fellow in youth, gender and work at Leeds; and Mia Ruijie Zhong, postdoctoral researcher at City.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles