This article is more than 1 year old

Are universities ready to face the realities of student work?

Sunday Blake looks at student working trends and asks what responsibility universities have to support students in their work - no matter how unpalatable
This article is more than 1 year old

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

Much of the recent research on students and work has concluded that part-time student work has increased since the cost of living crisis began.

The Sutton Trust found that 27 per cent of students have taken up a job or increased hours to meet financial commitments. These national findings are mirrored locally: Bath Spa students’ union found that 48.3 per cent of their students currently worked, with 24.8 per cent actively looking for part-time work. Manchester students’ union’s report revealed that 32 per cent of their students work part-time. And Canterbury Christ Church students’ union found 63 per cent of their students in paid employment said it negatively affects their academic studies.

This was predictable given the rate of inflation and the failure of the student maintenance loan to keep pace with it. It is no longer only students from lower socio-economic backgrounds working throughout the term; middle-class students are also taking on term-time work – so much so that a few weeks ago, Jim Dickinson asked if all students are part-time now.

But even within student worker demographics, there is a disparity. A HEPI survey last year found that only a small percentage of students from working-class backgrounds were in degree-relevant work. In contrast, those from private schools would use a part-time job to “gain work experience” or “explore possible career paths”, putting them at an advantage above their less privileged peers when entering the graduate workplace.

Elsewhere on Wonkhe, Agnieszka Rydzik and Chavan Kissoon report on their research exploring the experiences of students working part-time in the hospitality industry. Bad experiences at work were found to impact not only students’ academic performance and wellbeing in the short term but also their long-term attitudes to, and feelings about, work.

If students are struggling to balance part-time work with studying, it can explain low attendance, lack of class participation, or late submissions. Being aware of the impact of part-time work on students can change how course leaders think about assessment design, mitigation, extensions and exceptional circumstances. And if the sound of students clamouring for an earlier release of their timetable is not already deafening, it will be by next year.

These are important steps in addressing the recent finding from a survey for Blackbullion that students received lower marks when they had part-time jobs compared to when they did not, and study in 2008 found that working students in general achieved lower marks than those who did not have a part-time job, irrespective of the type of higher education institution they attended.

Part-time work has always been a part of the student experience, but it’s now arguably much more central to shaping that experience – because of the nature of part-time work, the gig economy, and the scale of it. If that is the case, universities really need to understand this work and how it is affecting students’ learning and broader experience. Not least because if part-time work while studying impacts graduate outcomes, then surely this becomes of interest to those who oversee access and participation and quality agendas.

Work is work

In particular, universities need to be aware of when students are engaged in work that is precarious, exploitative, or dangerous. That could be in hospitality, retail, or other casualised industries – and it could be in sex work. The mythology of student sex work is that it is exclusively undertaken by 19-year-old students thinking they will get a sugar daddy to buy them the latest designer handbag – not a parent-student taking a highly paid and flexible job in between balancing studying, housekeeping, and childcaring. Not that I judge either incentive – I’ve come across both – but sex workers and their reasons for sex working are diverse (in fact, the English Collective of Prostitutes found in 2019 that most sex workers are mothers).

Sex work is diverse, too. Sugarbabying (normally a sexual relationship with – usually much older – person in exchange for a financial allowance and/or gifts) and escorting (in-person transactional sex) are common. The recent cost of living survey by Canterbury Christ Church SU found that of the (small numbers of) students who had engaged in sex work, sending used clothes was the most common type of sex work done by their students, followed by intimate photos and OnlyFans. 58.3 per cent of the students who had done sex work in the past year said it was for financial reasons – with a fair portion of these saying it was specifically to pay their way through university. Whether we deem this work palatable or not – students are being paid for a form of labour to get through the cost of living crisis, And that’s work.

Elsewhere on Wonkhe, Samar Aad, Mariann Hardey, and Rille Raaper investigate the new phenomena of the study influencer, arguing that the heavy monetisation of social media – alongside working with digital third parties – creates various legal issues for students, as well as potentially impacting relationships with future employers.

Study influencers rose to prominence around the same time as platforms such as OnlyFans. Both parasocial roles are complex for students to navigate, leaving them open to stress, being targeted by stalkers, and exposure.

Facts and figures

Back in November 2021, the University of Durham Students’ Union came under a whole lot of heat for running awareness training for staff on student sex work. There were even accusations that the SU hadn’t provided awareness training for other forms of work (correction: they had).

The purpose of the exercise was to fully equip staff on the laws and misconceptions surrounding sex work so they could effectively engage and help student sex workers. Be that referring to hardship funds, helping find alternative employment for those who want to leave the industry, or simply showing the student that the institution has their back. It is essential that student sex workers – and I promise, your institution has them – know that their institution supports them.

As the cost of living challenge continues, the number of students in part-time work rises, and the number of students in sex work increases, I worry about how many vulnerable student workers will not be given the information they need to keep themselves safe because universities are not providing it (perhaps, reasonably, through fear of media scrutiny and political backlash).

I often think of one student sex worker I met when I worked in a students’ union. A particularly conniving client who had stumbled upon the term “morality clause” – a contractual provision education providers use requiring students to comply with specific standards of behaviour, which has been used against student sex workers – was using this to blackmail her. It was three months before she found out her university did not have one. An explicit show of support for sex workers (note: not for sex work) from her university could have prevented this.

Of course, there are the usual – stigmatising and indicative of the person making them – retorts around sex work. Mainly that sex work is different from other work because it is degrading – and yet, from the students Kissoon, Rydzik, and I have spoken to, it doesn’t seem that degradation is unique to sex work.

When we do not provide harm reduction information to students, they seek it elsewhere – and can end up with the wrong information. I quickly searched for “escort” in The Student Room and found worrying, incorrect, and dangerous answers from students to students enquiring how to become one. And no mention of any of the above legislations or limitations associated with the work that students really should know – such as two or more sex workers working from, or living in, the same house constitutes an illegal brothel which can result in a seven-year prison sentence.

Cognisance and candour

Universities stepping in to speak candidly to students about navigating safely less than desirable work is normalising nor endorsing that work. We are not endorsing casualised, zero-hour contracts or gig economy structures when we advocate for resources on students’ rights.

It is futile to argue that it would be preferable if students did not engage in work – any work, but of course, I must reiterate sex work – if we do not advocate loudly for an increase in financial support – in line with inflation, if not more, as well as degree-relevant paid opportunities.

But educators must be cognisant of the complex realities of the various forms of student work – whether hospitality, online influencing, or online sex work. We must be aware that the “choice” to enter into these positions has as many complexities and variables as there are students who have made it. Universities and students’ unions must help students to know what is and isn’t right for them and focus on helping them navigate through their working lives. And the HE sector must face up to the reality of student work.

One response to “Are universities ready to face the realities of student work?

  1. Durham’s Students’ Union was criticised for making claims about making an inherently dangerous industry ‘more safe’. The only way to genuinely protect students from the dangers of prostitution is to give them the necessary support to leave the industry and ensure that they are sufficiently supported so that they do not need to join. It is disingenuous to pretend that with a simple ‘toolkit’ students can continue sex work consequence-free as if they were taking part in any other form of labour.
    Sunday claims that other forms of work as degrading as prostitution, but makes no arguments to back up this incredible assertion. Prostitution is not just degrading and dangerous but traumatising and for universities to legitimise it as acceptable for their (predominantly female) students, then they are failing them.
    The vast majority of students enter this inherently exploitative industry out of economic hardship, so if universities want to provide genuine pastoral care for them, then they should look at hardship funds, accommodation rent caps and ensuring student work placements are paid.

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