Help the workers

December 4, 1998

As the THES/MORI poll reveals the extent of student work, Tom Wilson calls for more advice

Most students are now doing paid work in term-time. The proportion is rising steadily and so is the amount of work they take on. Some universities and higher education colleges have noticed but few appear to be thinking through the consequences or planning ahead. Yet the change is profound.

Not all students are doing this work because of hardship. Of course the progressive reduction in student grants, the introduction of loans and the Pounds 1,000 fee all play a part. But surveys by the University of Brighton show there are two groups of working students: those who do so in order to survive and those who do so to maintain a lifestyle which is more affluent.

The students who work to survive include mature students with dependants, sometimes single parents, often working for postgraduate qualifications and paying full fees. They may have taken out large loans and are very conscious of the need to use every minute they can find away from work or the demands of family to study. They may not want to spend much time clubbing.

Contrast that with the undergraduate student whose social life involves fair amounts of drinking and who sees no reason to live in penury. Why should they not choose to combine studying with stacking shelves? In fact students often say that the main reason for doing paid work is to afford a social life. Students need other students like they need oxygen. Surely that communal intensity is part of what university is all about? But this socialising is more expensive than it used to be. Clubbing may be a cultural norm but it is not cheap.

Another reason for the rise in student employment is the much greater availability of work for them. Students make up half the workforce at Burger King and Tesco. Jobs, hours and pay are carefully designed to suit students by a vast range of supermarkets, fast food outlets, hotels, bars and restaurants. Students do not ask for more money for shifts during unsociable hours and student labour has fuelled the rise of the UK service economy. Even if only half the four million students are working they still make up 10 per cent of the UK labour force.

Contrary to many expectations, the trade unions have not tried to stop this. In fact the GMB has introduced a pioneering 10p a week membership scheme to encourage students to join and has helped many ensure they receive fair treatment. The GMB approach has been to try to ensure that students know their rights, get a fair pay rate and are not used to undercut permanent staff. Similarly, Unison's approach to students working on campus has been to negotiate agreements, sometimes upgrading permanent staff in recognition of supervisory responsibilities over students.

Conversely, many universities and higher education colleges have been slow to react. Oxford and Cambridge frown on students working in term time but in practice many colleges turn a blind eye. The result is that many undergraduates are trapped in a vulnerable position. Risk being found out or live like a hermit?

Some lecturers may be privately sympathetic but how do students know until too late which ones are not? It is surely far better to have a clear policy that recognises reality and gives students practical help, such as what kind of work to look for and how much is too much.

Good universities, such as De Montfort or Manchester, do try hard to help students get appropriate work if possible. Partly resulting from pressure from the National Union of Students, most universities do now have campus job shops of some kind, although they have often had to fight entrenched academic hostility - the attitude of some lecturers that "better a hungry student than a working student". This may explain why job shops are rarely part of mainstream university services.

Work placements may be the ideal answer and should be expanded but successful placements need careful planning, monitoring, close liaison and feedback. They are not a cheap option.

But the academic response needs to go deeper. If students are working 15 hours a week or more then what is the difference between a full-time and a part-time course? If some students simply cannot survive during term time and do the same amount of academic work as others, is continual assessment fair? Should universities advertise the availability of local work? Does self-directed learning leave students with too much time on their hands? These questions raise fundamental issues. Students deserve clear answers.

Tom Wilson is head of the university department at Natfhe.

* Should universities do more to help students who work? Email us on See Your Students, page I-VIII

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