A job's just part of the course

October 30, 1998

Nearly two-thirds of students are expected to take on part-time work this term. Harriet Swain reports

Only a few years ago, many universities would throw students out if they caught them taking paid work in term-time. Now, nearly every university in the country runs or supports a service to help students find a part-time job while they study.

The number of students seeking term-time employment has risen steadily in the past five years as student maintenance grants have dropped and more people from different financial backgrounds have begun attending university. But the introduction this year of tuition-fee charges and the phased abolition of grants have tipped the balance. With full-time students now expecting to leave their courses with about Pounds 15,000 in debt, paid work has become an expected part of university life.

John Sander, student employment officer at the University of Sussex, which deals with 4,000-6,000 placements a year, said: "My experience in the past two weeks is that most students are arriving expecting to work. Last year they tended not to work for a term and then realised they needed to make ends meet." He said this year's freshers had been contacting the centre since July to set up work.

Estimates by university careers services, job shops and unions suggest that about 60 per cent of this year's students will work at some point in term-time and 80 per cent will work over holidays.

There is a danger that students will push low-paid workers out of jobs on campus. Students themselves also face exploitation off campus.

All this could transform the student experience and make it more like university life in the United States. Most US universities have financial support offices, which try to fill the gap between students' income and the cost of their education through a mixture of grants, loans and employment. Their role has been questioned recently as the gap between income and costs has risen. Debate has focused on whether students should be encouraged to borrow more rather than work.

The issue is complicated by a recent trend to treat student employment as not just an income but a way for students to develop general skills. Earlier this year, the University of South Carolina's national resource centre published a survey of millions of US students in the 1995-96 cohort. It found that working for up to 15 hours a week could lift students' academic grades, 15-20 hours had a neutral effect, but more than 20 hours had a negative effect.

In Britain, Lord Dearing's inquiry recommended that institutions, government and employers all try to give students more work-experience opportunities. Its report stated: "All the evidence that we have reviewed endorses the value of some exposure of the student to the wider world as part of a programme of study. This may be achieved through work experience, involvement in student union activities or work in community or voluntary settings."

Since then, Lee Harvey, head of the centre for research into quality at the University of Central England, has produced a study describing the benefits for employers and students of work experience through sandwich courses, project-linked work experience and term-time and vacation work.

It says that work experience can help students put into practice theory learnt in university. But the study stresses the importance of students evaluating what they learn and suggests, for example, linking work experiences into university assessment processes.

Government-funded pilot projects have been set up in universities around the country to find ways of doing this and of evaluating student employment.

Sheffield Hallam University is producing guidelines for managing work experience in the hotel and catering trade. Manchester University and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology are working with careers bodies to set up an electronic brokering service that links employers and students.

Meanwhile, Job Shops and employment agencies that put employers in touch with students seeking work have been opening on campuses around the country.

A survey by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services last year found that 56 of 105 institutions questioned had a student employment service and 26 were considering one.

The services vary. Some act as a jobs agency, hiring students and charging employers for the service. Others just put students and employers in touch. Most run on a non-profit basis, with funding from the university, student union or private sponsors.

Moves are now afoot to coordinate these services and establish common guidelines. John Sander said:"We are trying to establish a coordinating body because we feel this is going to grow, and we need to offer each other support."

The AGCAS report found 24 services advised students that they should work no more than 15 hours a week during term-time, although most respondents said it was impossible to police any limit.

* Will a recession kill off work placements? Page 30.

IT PAYS FOR A PINT

Oz Ablett (above) has learnt all about office life, wearing a shirt and tie and programming a computer in the spare hours between studying for his degree.

The 20-year-old is a second-year BA student in English language and film studies. He earns Pounds 40 to Pounds 50 a week working at the University of Kent, Canterbury Job Shop. He also works in the campus shop on and off during the term and full-time in the holidays.

The university does not allow students to work for more than 15 hours a week.

With no grant and parents who can support him only to a point, Mr Ablett works to pay for the odd luxury and a couple of nights' drinking a week.

His duties at the Job Shop, which opened this year, include administration, phoning to find jobs for students, entering student data in the computer and making coffee.

Mr Ablett signs up for two or three four-hour shifts a week. The arrangement is flexible enough to allow him time off if he find at the last minute that he needs to attend a lecture.

"It doesn't encroach on study time that much. I'm into time planning anyway, and I still get to watch Emmerdale and EastEnders as well as study and go to lectures," Mr Ablett says.

The work has influenced his career plans. The responsibility of handling a till and enjoyment of giving a service to people have made him keen to secure a job in retail management.

STUDENTS AND UNIONS MOVE TOWARDS COOPERATION

Pay levels for working students are a sore point with unions. Some low-paid workers fear that students, who are prepared to work flexible hours without holiday or sick pay, could take work from them.

Maggie Bristow (above), a housekeeping supervisor at Bristol University and TGWU shop steward, said when she started at the university nine years ago the servery had five full-time staff. Now there is only one, plus four casual students.

"We have women in our halls working on 32-week contracts who want 52-week contracts," she said. "The university uses casuals to save money, and these women have to go on benefit for the rest of the time."

But a Unison spokeswoman said there were benefits to students working: "In some cases they are used to establish the fact that a job is needed."

The rise in the number of students working has led unions such as Unison and GMB to enlist them as union members.

The GMB offers a discounted membership rate of 10 pence a week for students. Its national young members officer, Steve Pryle, said 500 students signed up as members in London alone when the campaign began last autumn. The fears of some union members that students would bring with them extra problems and detract from the rest of the union's work have proved unfounded.

The GMB is running a national campaign against lower minimum wages for young people. Earlier this year, the Low Pay Commission recommended a minimum wage of Pounds 3.60 and Pounds 3.20 for young people. The government accepted its recommendation, but decided that 18 to 21-year-olds should start on Pounds 3.00 in April 1999, rising to Pounds 3.20 only in June.

A GMB study two years ago on the employment of young people found that just under a third of older working students and 48 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds in full-time education worked in retail and that a quarter of student workers worked in hotels and restaurants. Male students tended to be assigned to more physical tasks and to a broader range of occupations.

The report, based on figures from the Labour Force Survey, found that pay rates for young people were low but those in education got a better deal than those who were not.

The National Union of Students has been working with the GMB to improve conditions for students in employment.

An NUS spokeswoman said: "Our main concern is that there is so much pressure put on students to take part-time work to live. They are letting go of the reason why they are at university, many are neglecting their academic work."

Job Shops set up by student unions help keep tabs on the kinds of work students were doing, the spokeswoman said. "We want to ensure that the students' priorities, their terms and conditions and safety aspects, are as important to the university as if they were looking after their welfare as a student."

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Sponsored