Having a job in term-time is not just an academic problem, it has implications for access policies, writes Robin Humphrey.
A recent study of undergraduate students covering all seven faculties (except the medical school) at Newcastle University found that engaging in term-time employment has important consequences for students in their social experiences and in their academic performance. Although not all students have to work to supplement their income, those from less wealthy backgrounds are much more likely to have paid work while they study for their degrees. Their need to supplement their income in this way leads to their being further disadvantaged.
At 34 per cent, Newcastle University has the tenth highest proportion of students from independent schools of any university in the country. Students from independent schools are much less likely to be employed than students from state schools (in our study, 90 per cent of those who worked came from state schools). Also, most students from independent schools move away from home when they go to university, whereas the prospect of debt deters state school students and consequently more of them opt to stay in the parental home.
As a result of this social make-up, perhaps, the proportion of students who told us they had part-time employment (23 per cent) was quite low compared with reports from studies in other universities. Without doubt, however, this figure has grown with the gradual withdrawal of the maintenance grant since 1993 and its replacement by student loans.
So did term-time employment have any effect on students' life at university? At first glance, it seems there was no discernible effect. Using a tried-and-tested measure of stress, we found no difference in stress levels between those who had a job and those who did not, nor did the number of hours worked make a difference. Also, working part-time did not affect how students felt they were managing their academic workloads, nor how involved they felt with their departments.
Students with employment, however, did feel markedly less involved with the university as a whole and were much less likely to have joined a society or sports club, arguably an important part of the university experience.
But the most profound effect of term-time employment was found in academic performance. Students who were employed during the academic year had an end-of-year average mark nearly 3 per cent lower than students who did not work. This effect was not dependent on previous schooling. Indeed, independent school students achieved lower average marks than did students from state schools. There were slight, but not significant, variations in employment rates between faculties, but work's overall effect on academic performance was not dependent on what was being studied. It is not possible to assess accurately what these findings mean in terms of final class of degree, as the data relate to one year only - the year that the student reported having a part-time job - while a degree is assessed over two years at least. However, our calculations indicate that 35 per cent of those who had a job could have achieved a higher class for that year if they had not been in employment.
The finding that term-time employment affects academic performance and limits the social experience of students is worrying in itself, but concerns are increased by the association between job-seeking and social background.
The policy implications are stark. Recent attempts to widen access by encouraging school students from deprived areas to consider entering higher education seem to address only part of the problem, as the experience of university becomes more dependent on social class background than it has been hitherto. The social and economic levelling of the maintenance grant has disappeared, and the introduction of student loans and the payment of tuition fees have sharpened social divisions within the student population.
Perhaps the major conclusion from this study is that the demise of the maintenance grant has pulled structured inequality, inherently a feature of a divided secondary education system, firmly into higher education.
Robin Humphrey is senior lecturer and director of the postgraduate research training programme in the social sciences department of sociology and social policy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
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