Analysis: Odd jobs are ever more common

August 17, 2001

To cover the cost of a degree, more young people are taking paid work. Student stocktakers, sperm donors and models tell Cherry Canovan of the highs and lows of work and study.

Students are prostitutes. Students are chatline workers. Students are toilet cleaners on colorectal hospital wards. This is the picture of hardship that is presented to us by the tabloid press. These accounts are true - but they are not the whole story.

Most student union officers, including those from top-ranking Russell Group universities, know students who work in the sex industry. The National Union of Students hears stories of students forced into terrible jobs to keep their debts at manageable levels.

But the reality for most students is less unsavoury. The NUS's most recent Students at Work survey, conducted in 1999, found that 42 per cent worked in hotels, pubs or restaurants, while 31 per cent worked in shops or supermarkets. Less popular occupations included office work, cleaning and building work.

These jobs may at least not be seedy or dangerous, but they bring with them a host of problems. The survey discovered that 75 per cent of respondents did not get sick pay and that 60 per cent got no paid holidays. Meanwhile, nearly 60 per cent felt that paid work had affected their studies.

More than a fifth had failed to submit coursework on time as a direct result of work, and 38 per cent had missed lectures. Nearly half felt work had cost them higher grades - and more than a quarter said it had affected their health.

Claire Kober, NUS vice-president (welfare), said: "The NUS's evidence shows that since our 1999 survey of students at work, the figures for numbers of students having to work to support themselves has continued to increase. Almost all students now need to work to try to minimise escalating hardship and debt.

"There have been some improvements in working conditions due to new rights for part-time and casual workers - for example sick pay and holiday pay - but average hours worked during termtime are rising and having a detrimental effect on grades and student health. NUS cases show that 50 per cent of students are getting lower grades than if they had not had to work, and incidences of depression among students have doubled in recent years."

That this issue is being taken increasingly seriously is highlighted by Universities UK's decision to make a study of student suicides. The project is now under way.

But things are not all doom and gloom. The stories that follow show that while for some the need to work is onerous and distressing, it can also have positive consequences such as building character or providing an unforeseen career break. If you have never considered pursuing a calling in bouncy castles, read on...

After five jobs, debt still looms large

Stocktaking in filthy warehouses at 4am was not the perfect start to Sheryl Barrington's university career - but at £6 an hour, it was not an offer she could afford to refuse.

Ms Barrington, 21, from Oxford, was used to the idea of paying her way well before she arrived at Manchester Metropolitan University. She came from a single-parent family and began work at 13 to pay for clothes and leisure activities.

One family member had run up serious debts, and the situation left Ms Barrington worried about doing the same. She worked through the summer before starting her business studies degree and raised enough money to pay for her first six months' accommodation.

Once she arrived, she took a variety of jobs - as well as the stocktaking she worked as a waitress, in a bar and behind a till in a shop. Another source of income was more unexpected - one of the cleaners in her halls of residence, whom she tutored in maths.

Despite all this effort, Ms Barrington looks set to graduate heavily in debt. "I don't want to owe the government £10,500 when I come out. It's not really a good start in life," she said.

Although she believes that those who can afford to pay their way should be asked to do so, she said there should be more help for people who really need it.

From the junkyard to presidency of guild

Jared Wilson's story is a real rags-to-riches tale, which saw him go from working in a junkyard in Nottingham to becoming guild president at the University of Exeter in 2000-01.

"At the end of my second year, I needed a summer job," he explained. "The term at Exeter finishes late, and by the time I got back to Nottingham all the jobs in bars and shops were taken. So I signed on with an agency and they offered me work with Wastecycle UK in Collick Industrial Estate, Nottingham."

Mr Wilson, now 22, worked the entire summer for £3.70 an hour. "The pay was bad, but I just had to take the job. Any time I spent looking for other jobs was money I could be earning in the junkyard." He even had to relocate to a different part of the city so that he could get to work for the 8am start.

"I quite enjoyed the whole experience actually. I was annoyed when I found out that the agency were taking more per hour for my work than I was, but apart from that I don't regret a thing," he said. "The hard work definitely made me appreciate the money I was earning more.

"At first the other guys that worked there were so suspicious of me that they took a sweepstake on how long I would last. This made me even more determined to stick it out, and after a while they realised I was staying and took me in like one of the family.

"It was definitely quite a contrast. One summer I was picking rocks and metal out from big piles of rubbish, and the next I was chairing university committees.

"There is a world of difference between working with the guys at Wastecycle and working with Lord Alexander of Weedon (Exeter's chancellor) or Sir Geoffrey Holland (vice-chancellor). I'm not sure which one I preferred."

It's no joke making the punchlines pay off

What would be a night out for most students is a night's work for comedian Alex Zane, who is using his stand-up skills to pay his way through university.

Mr Zane, 22, is from Leeds, and he has just finished his first year's study at Goldsmiths College. Previously he studied medicine at University College London, but dropped out of the course.

"I went to UCL thinking I would be able to do stand-up and medicine in synchrony," he said. "I didn't realise what an intensive course medicine was going to be."

Now Mr Zane is studying media and communications and making a decent living from his comedy skills. He performs an average of three gigs a week and earns from £50 to £150 for a 20-minute act. His performances have taken him all over the country, from Exeter to Edinburgh.

Another source of income is comedy clubs, which he has set up at Goldsmiths and UCL. "At the back of my mind is the idea that I could drop out of every college around London and set up a mini comedy empire," he said.

However, his comedy commitments have on occasion got him into hot water when he has been forced to skip classes. "I think universities are going to have to be prepared to be very accommodating for students who want to study full time but have to work, especially in London," he said.

Model student finds work can be a strain

Fine art student Debbie Mingham got the opportunity to see life from the other side of the easel when she decided to pay her way by becoming a life model.

The job involves posing nude for art classes for between two and three and a half hours. It pays well, at up to £7 an hour, and Ms Mingham says it gives her time to think about art and her studies. But there is a downside.

"It gets quite painful in the muscles after a while, because you have to sit completely still," she explained. "If you have to stand, you might feel faint or dizzy."

Life modelling's great advantage, though, is that it does not interfere with Ms Mingham's studies, which many other jobs have done.

For her studies at the University of Central England, she has to be in the studio from 10am to 5pm most days. But she needs to work because on top of living costs she has to pay a lot for materials.

"I have worked right from the beginning of my course," she said. "I was in a pub to begin with, but the hours were too late at night. After that, I worked for a market research company, phoning people with questionnaires. That was OK, but again it was into the evening and eventually I had to give it up because it was affecting my college work."

Modelling has come as a relief, but the hours are limited and Ms Mingham has to take on some other work. She has spent the summer selling credit cards at Birmingham Airport.

Bounced into a career by a holiday sideline

Computing and management graduates can usually expect careers in systems support, or to spend their days tweaking code. Not so Alan Gilby, whose degree enabled him to break into the world ofI bouncy castles.

Mr Gilby, 22, graduated from Loughborough University, where he spent his vacations working for Antix Leisure, a web-based company that hires out inflatables for events.

"During the summer I used to stop my computing work and go out and man the bouncy castle," he said. "Although I only used to get £30 per day, it's a great job if you can get it. The hard work comes at the beginning and the end of the shifts when you have to bring the castle out and put it back away. Apart from that, most of the work is just sitting around in the sun."

Antix services children's events and schools in the daytime, but the company is more geared towards inflatable fun for adults.

"You'd be surprised about how popular it can be among older people," Mr Gilby said. "One of the most bizarre times was when we took it to the St Luke's Ball at the University of Exeter. It was a full-on black-tie do, and yet they still went absolutely mad for it. It was quite an odd experience. People should behave like kids more!"

Mr Gilby liked it so much that when he left university he joined the company full time. He now divides his time between updating its website and touring the 30x40ft castle around the country.

'I force myself to work 35 hours a week'

Darlington Dike is a part-time law student at Westminster University - and he is also a full-time post-room assistant for a courier company. For the past three years, he has worked from 8am to 5pm, five days a week, while studying in the evenings to achieve a better life.

Mr Dike, who is 34 and from east London, is about to start the final year of his five-year degree. He is certain that the hours he puts in at work are affecting his academic performance, but he believes that he cannot cut back at his job. "Because of the things I need to buy, such as books, I tend to force myself to work 35 hours a week."

Mr Dike said that life is tough but he continues to drive himself on. "You have to hang in there," he said. "I want to get out of the present level I am at. If you don't try, you are going to stay where you are."

And the future promises to be even tougher. "When I finish and go to law school, I expect to pay about £10,000 to £12,000 to get through," he said. "I have no idea how I'm going to raise that - I don't even want to think about it. But I'm not going to throw in the towel. It is what lies ahead that spurs you on."

Frozen donations bring in some cool cash

Benjamin Gardner has found a way to fund his studies while making a contribution to society. He donates to a sperm bank.

"Officially they're not allowed to pay you, so what I get is a convenience payment," he explained. "For each donation you get £15, followed by an extra £5 that comes in the form of £100 cheque after you have given 20 healthy donations."

Mr Gardner, 20, has just finished his first year studying social psychology at the University of Sussex. He saw an advertisement seeking sperm donors in a student magazine and rang up "for a laugh". But when they phoned him back and gave him details, he decided to try it.

"It's quite an enjoyable day out," he said. "You go in there and they send you to a room with a brown folder of adult magazines and a little pot with your name on.

"If it's a good one, it will freeze properly. If not, then you have to go back the next week and give it them again."

He has since been back to the clinic about 22 times, giving healthy donations 20 times. This is the maximum amount of visits one person is allowed to make.

Mr Gardner estimates that he has earned about £450 since he started donating six months ago - a sum it could have taken him 120 hours to earn in a more traditional student job. Before this, he spent his summers doing data entry, a job that he does not feel compares favourably with donating sperm.

"It's not exactly the most strenuous work and I'd advise anybody to give it a go. As long as you have thought about the moral implications of it, then it is an easy way to make some money while you are at university."

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