Supporting students who work

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Academic study can run in tandem with work and it’s about time all employers and all universities made it a realistic option. I’m currently studying an MSc in Policy Research whilst working at the education think tank LKMco. I’m doing both full-time. It’s tough, but contrary to popular misgivings, I haven’t spontaneously combusted (yet).

Instead, I’ve had support from both my employer and the University of Bristol to make it work. With the right help, studying alongside working could be mutually beneficial for more individuals, employers, universities and society as a whole.  

Win-win

I firmly believe that young people’s backgrounds should not limit their educational opportunities. I also don’t think the door should close once people reach adulthood.

Enabling more working people to study could improve educational equality. For many adults, higher education wasn’t an option in their youth. Things like personal circumstances, societal attitudes or financial constraints may have been a barrier. It has historically been the case that poorer young people are less likely to go to university than their more affluent peers. Retaining your employment shouldn’t block access to higher education.

An employee’s study experience can benefit individuals and employers. Learning offers people new skills and knowledge that can help them in their career progression, as well as their existing job.

For instance, my MSc modules on quantitative and qualitative research methods have helped me to understand why the research we carry out at LKMco is rigorous and how to make sure that it continues to be so. I can now apply that knowledge to my job. Furthermore, backing employees to study can help them feel valued. Being supportive of my studies shows me that my bosses care.

Employee development doesn’t have to be confined to training days or short courses. For example, my MSc course is not only helping me to know more about public policy and research, it’s giving me space to reflect and hone my skills. Unlike with one-off training days, each new module I take builds on the previous one. I also get feedback from my university regularly. I’m able to test out my new knowledge, reflect upon what I’ve learnt, build on my learning and apply the skills to my job. It’s a virtuous circle.

Universities, too, can prosper from more people combining work and study. Student cohorts which include people with different jobs add diversity of thought to university campuses. Sharing my lectures with restaurant staff, social workers, retailers, teachers and youth workers has widened my perspective. It has also enabled fruitful discussions between students and lecturers.

There are potential downsides to people working and studying, but such risks can be mitigated. Working and studying means I have more to do. I could feel drowned in work, neglect my friends and family and miss deadlines for both university and my job. I’ve had to learn to manage my time, but the support I’ve had from my university and my employer has made this easier.

What can universities do?

My experience has shown me that higher education courses can be designed to make simultaneous work and study easier. Carefully planning when modules run, when assignments are due and how to share resources helps me manage my time:

  • Rather than lectures being spread over a term, entire modules are taught in 3-day blocks. Therefore, I can use some of my annual leave to attend and can start writing assignments well in advance of due dates.
  • I often have assignments, but their due dates don’t usually clash. This means that I can concentrate on one essay at a time.
  • Reading lists, presentations and essay topics are shared well in advance of a module beginning. It is therefore possible to start reading and have an overall understanding of the subject area before attending lectures.

Feedback from other working students also suggests that carefully structured courses are important. On my course, some find that studying part-time helps to alleviate time-pressures. Furthermore, stories from those who have studied at the Open University and Birkbeck, University of London show how careful course organisation can make university accessible for employed adults. This can be life-changing.  

Access to strong pastoral care is also important for employed students. Knowing that the door is always open for me to discuss any issues I’m facing puts me at ease. Even simple things like my lecturers regularly asking me how I am doing makes me feel valued and supported. Given figures from IPPR and the Health and Safety Executive showing an increase in the number of university students experiencing mental illness and workers suffering from work-related stress, prioritising pastoral care is clearly essential.

What can employers do?

Effective support from employers can make working and studying easier. My bosses put aside time to talk to me about my study plans. This has helped me to manage my time and workload. I have used some of my annual leave to attend lectures, I know the dates that LKMco work is due and I have spoken to my managers about how I’m balancing everything. Not only do these discussions make me feel more at ease, they act as an opportunity to share ideas about how I can approach working and studying.

My approach may not be suitable for everyone. Some employees may find that going part-time or changing their hours is preferable. Different workplaces and roles come with differing expectations and things might change over the duration of a course. It is therefore important employers make time to discuss employees’ personal plans for studying, as part of ongoing management and development conversations.

If employees show an interest in higher education, let them know that it is possible to work and study. Don’t be afraid that they’ll leave if they become more qualified. Employees who feel trapped or undervalued will be unhappy. This might push them to leave anyway.

Funding is the elephant in the room. Higher education is notoriously expensive. However, where employers aren’t in a position to pay, this doesn’t have to be a preventative factor. Loans are available from the government (I’ve taken one out) and banks. Universities also offer some bursaries and employees may choose to use their own savings. Given the multitude of funding options and interest rates, employers should discuss funding plans with employees who wish to study.

Studying is challenging. Working is challenging. Doing both at the same time certainly isn’t a walk in the park. However, employers and universities can help employed students to make it work.

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