The first concrete evidence that poorer students are undermining their academic performance by working during term time emerged at a Universities UK seminar on debt this week.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge responded by announcing a major survey of student hardship to monitor the impact of white paper changes, and launched a debate on the definition of hardship.
She drew a distinction between student debt and student hardship. She asked: "What is it legitimate for the state to subsidise?" She questioned whether student support should go on £1,000 annual drinks bills and mobile phones. "Are mobile phones a legitimate cost which if not met through student support will prevent working-class kids from going to university?" she asked.
Student Debt and Term-time Working , by researchers from South Bank University, found that students who worked more than 16 hours a week achieved significantly lower final-year average marks than other students (57.69 compared with 60.94 when weighted for academic ability).
Co-author Ruth Van Dyke said: "The difference is on the borderline between a good 2:1 and a first." She said new patterns of student work threatened "key assumptions underpinning the teaching style in higher education".
Ms Hodge said: "Low-paid work is a good life experience for a pretty privileged bunch of young people." But she said that the balance between work and study had to be right.
The report also shows "sharp contrasts" in term-time working across different types of universities and questions whether league tables of academic performance should take this into account.
Ms Hodge challenged the view put forward in a separate report, Student Debt: The Impact on Participation in Higher Education , that debt deterred poorer students. She said: "Nine out of ten people with two A levels go on to university. Are we better at investing our limited resources into student support to deal with debt or into schools to raise standards?"
The Department for Education and Skills has put out a tender for the student hardship survey. Claire Callender, author of Student Debt , has been commissioned to carry out a smaller survey of student hardship.