Nine in 10 Australasian students juggling study with paid work

Demands of part-time jobs lead some students to settle for lower grades, with balancing commitments now biggest source of stress

March 21, 2023
Busker juggles with three knives Busker juggles with three knives in Sydney, Australia to illustrate Nine in ten Australasian students juggling study with paid work
Source: Getty

More students have been taking on paid work amid soaring living costs – with grades plummeting as a result – but a buoyant labour market has also pushed some to hurl themselves into “ugly” competition with each other, according to an Australasian employment study.

The survey of more than 1,100 students finds that work commitments are imposing an escalating stress toll, with almost nine in 10 respondents in paid employment by late 2022, up from about eight in 10 a year earlier and seven in 10 in 2018.

Additional responsibilities have replaced study workloads as students’ principal source of stress. Of 2022 respondents, 66 per cent nominate “having to balance my time with other commitments” as the biggest source of anxiety, up from 61 per cent in 2021, with students aged over 23 particularly feeling the pressure.

In 2018, just 27 per cent of respondents to a similar questionnaire said balancing work obligations was the most stressful part of study. The latest survey finds that leisure time now rates a relatively low fourth in students’ priorities, behind study, work and caring for family.

The surveys, now in their eighth year, are commissioned by the educational services company Studiosity. “The data is telling us that students are working more,” said chief academic officer Judyth Sachs, a former provost at Sydney’s Macquarie University.

“Students are time poor. They’re having to juggle a whole lot of balls. Some of them have a sense that ‘the world doesn’t look so good for me; what am I going to do?’ And they retreat.”

Education department statistics show that the grades of Australia’s students have declined since the onset of coronavirus, with students passing a lower share of the subjects in which they enrol.

The Studiosity data shows that the proportion of students settling for passes or credits rose by around 10 per cent last year, with fewer achieving distinctions or high distinctions. “[There is a] sense of students monitoring their performance and what’s possible,” Professor Sachs said.

But she said respondents’ comments had also revealed that the opposite was taking place, with burgeoning competition leading to elite students vying to secure top grades, scholarships and internships. “It seems as though there’s an invisible competitive economy in…some of the performing disciplines like music, arts and probably even some of the sciences.”

Professor Sachs said she had observed a similar phenomenon emerging since about 2020, through her work on university scholarship committees. “When you’ve got 50 students applying for four places, while they’re not uncivil to each other, they’re sort of eyeing each other over and thinking: ‘What have I got to do to get ahead of this person?’

“Competition can be good, but competition can also be quite destructive. The ugly side of competition can be really unpleasant.”

This was one of the “big conundrums” for universities as students confronted a world of increasing uncertainty, she said.

“What’s that doing in terms of student experience [and] the quality of learning? Are students getting higher-order skills or have they just managed to understand how to pass exams?”

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