Missing out on 'the experience'

July 16, 1999

In the second of our student soundings on university life, undergraduates talk about the pressures of juggling paid work with study, and finding time and the money for a social life. Jennifer Currie reports.

Contrary to popular belief, students do work. According to a 1995 National Union of Students survey, four out of every ten students hold down a job during term-time. With the advent of tuition fees, it seems reasonable to assume that this figure will have increased in recent years.

As more and more students find themselves turning to poorly paid, part-time employment as a means of subsidising their studies, they must be questioning the quality and value of their university experience. Yet for many of the interviewees who took part in The THES survey on student issues, there are no questions involved: the straight answer is simply that work is part of the degree structure.

Sharee, a law student at Strathclyde University, works 22 hours a week in addition to her 20 weekly hours of lectures. "I wouldn't say it has had any effect academically, but it means that I can't go out at the weekends. But I'd probably spend money so it's a good thing."

Sacrificing spare time does have its drawbacks, however. Sara, who is studying human biology at Plymouth University and works as a security guard, said: "I still work 16 hours. I'm here Friday and Saturday. My main problem is that I don't finish work until about 3am and you want to chill out for a while having drunk so much caffeine and then you sleep until 2 o'clock on Saturday and then you realise that you've got to start work in three and a half hours, at 6.30pm. The weekend's gone."

Ben, an English student at Goldsmiths College, London, used to work 20-25 hours each week. "It got to the point where I had to give it up. I mean, it ate into the time that I had to do anything, and study. But this is it, it's like you need to work to carry on studying, but you end up doing that to the exclusion of everything else."

According to the NUS employment study, over 10 per cent of all students had missed lectures or failed to submit work because of work commitments. For those with term-time jobs, 30 per cent had missed lectures, while 20 per cent had not handed in assignments.

For Siobhan, an English and history student at Goldsmiths, this meant nearly missing her exams. "I was working for three days a week for a total of 24 hours, and three days a week at college. But my company were really nasty about me taking time off to do my exams and stuff. Actually I've just had to leave because it got so bad and I've just had quite an abusive letter from them."

Short terms and intense workloads mean that students at Cambridge University are strongly advised not to work during term-time. Rowena, an English student, does not think that this situation will change - even if financial pressures increase.

She said: "The colleges want massive academic achievement. We have eight-week terms, the workload is really heavy, lots of people have Saturday lectures as well. I don't really know how anyone could fit it in."

Her sentiments are echoed by Leslie Anne, a medical student, who admitted that she thought the university was also against vacation work.

"When I told my director of studies that I worked over Christmas his face just went white!"

Struggling Cambridge students can access hardship funds in times of need, although the sums of money available vary from college to college, meaning that services are not consistent. Jane, a social and political sciences student, said of her college: "They're not too bad for travel grants and stuff like that, but when it comes to welfare and hardship stuff they're ****."

In the middle of these two extremes are the majority of students who work through every vacation period. None of the interviewees from Lancaster University worked during term-time, although Ronan, who is studying combined science, conceded that this would have to change in the next academic year. "I'll have to get a job next year during term-time. I mean I have to work during the holidays anyway as well," he said.

Julia, a journalism student at Cardiff University, said: "It sounds a bit pathetic though when you've got like eight hours a week and you can't actually find time."

Students on courses with compulsory laboratory practicals often find it harder to fit a part-time job into their schedules, as Emily, a biochemistry student also at Cardiff, pointed out.

"I don't work in the term-time, but I work during the holidays and stuff. I was going to take up one during the term but I think it would just take too much time," she said.

Finding a happy medium between a healthy bank balance and respectable grades is a trick not easily mastered. One solution is to find a term-time post that will not make too many inroads on any precious spare time, as Vivienne, a bioscience student from Strathclyde, managed.

"I get to do hours that don't affect my college work too much as I usually find a combination between work and studies."

Strathclyde's student union runs a jobshop, which advertises local employment - an arrangement that is now a common feature of student unions across the country.

Having to work their way through university clashes with ideals about student lifestyles. Kirsty, a fine art and art history student at Goldsmiths, said:

"Just having Sundays off or something is ridiculous. I mean the whole point of the weekend is that you can recharge for the following week."

Fellow Goldsmiths history student Pete agrees that students who have to work in order to pay for basic living costs, or to pay off debts, are missing out on something.

"We're talking about working so we can study. But what about all the clubs and societies and

everything else?

"I remember when I was at school we were told all about how good the experience of university was for you and the things you could do but I don't really know how you can do that unless you've got the money. There's not time to do all the things that should go with university life."

It seems almost inevitable that as students are forced into the all-work-and-no-play circle, the university experience will change. Increased costs in education and living coupled with pressures to succeed in a competitive work place are the circumstances students will need to steel themselves against.

The future seems bleak, but students remain positive. When Jennifer, a politics student from Strathclyde, noticed that her grip on her academic work was beginning to slip, she ditched her term-time job immediately.

"I thought, hang on a minute, I'm here to get my degree, so I now only work during vacation times as I still need the money, but I don't want to get behind in my studies."

* Student employment facts

Students most commonly find work in retail and hospitality, according to the NUS 1995 survey of student employment.

Three-quarters of those surveyed were working for less than Pounds 4 per hour. Thirteen per cent of this total earned under Pounds 3 per hour. Shifts are usually long and during unsocial hours, with overtime rates for term-time student workers averaging at Pounds 1 less than the average hourly rate.

Only half of the students who do the same jobs as permanent staff get paid the same rate.

80 per cent of term-time workers get no sick or holiday pay.

Some 40 per cent reported that they did not get meal or tea breaks.

One-third of the students questioned felt that they had been badly treated by their employers.

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