Good work, great job – a renewed agenda for student employment

If students need to work during term time, how can we ensure those jobs are high quality and well paid? Jim Dickinson sweats the asset.

There’s a bit of good news around when it comes to young people and jobs.

The proportion of economically active young adults either unemployed or fully furloughed has halved since May 2020 – to around 16 per cent at the end of May 2021. But the Resolution Foundation finds that they’ve still been hit harder by the pandemic than older people – at two and a half times more likely to be out of work.

One in four students say their mental health is poor, and young people are most concerned of all age groups that their ability to find – and progress in – a job will be hindered by their mental health. And they’re also the most concerned that their mental health will be impacted if they do not have good opportunities in the labour market in future.

That’s not just about the state of the labour market. As Jisc’s Charlie Ball pointed out recently on the site, in a recent Prospects survey as well a lack of opportunities to apply for, nearly half of students said that they felt unprepared for getting a job or an apprenticeship, students said that not having work experience was their biggest barrier to getting work, and not having the right skills was up there too.

There’s no doubt that some of that problem is likely to ease as the restrictions ease. Significant reductions in office space will be a residual concern for some, but work experience is busy being reinvented in many corporates, and both extra and co-curricular student opportunities will return if supported appropriately.

The missing link between practical, in-person components of courses, careers readiness activity like work experience, and extra and co-curricular student activities and opportunities is surely part-time work. Hundreds of thousands of students are engaged in it in a usual year, it provides important income to students who would otherwise struggle on the statutory support, and in moderation it has been shown to be good for students’ mental health and their educational outcomes.

So why aren’t we better at using our capacity and influence to cause that work to be “good work”, and sweating the assets we have as a sector to ensure that students derive maximum benefit from employment both on-campus and in our surrounding areas?

Maybe what’s good gets a little bit better

Over the years, I have come across a heady mix of missed opportunities, unnecessary silos and sharp practice both within and adjacent to the sector that we really ought to decide specifically to tackle.

Within the sector, we all know of students that obtain temporary, sessional or part-time work without an interview. We surely should ensure that every bit of a university uses proper interviews and selection processes, displays effective EDI practice and gives students good experience of taking part in interviews and selection processes.

That ought to include ensuring that working for the university, the students union or any of its on-campus contractors will involve an application process based on a person spec, an interview which gives decent feedback to those who are unsuccessful, pay and conditions that go beyond the legal minimums, and whose stats on student body representativeness will be gathered and monitored proactively with action taken where there are shortfalls. There are still some universities, for example, where PGR teaching roles are not properly advertised or interviewed for. Guess what happens next from an EDI point of view.

It ought also to mean decent “on the job” support – ensuring that those supporting or managing student workers deliver a good experience, implement terms and conditions that work well for students and offer personal development opportunities, support, training and appraisal. Visibly demonstrating what good employment looks and feels like will mean that those that later become managers or employers themselves will be more likely to replicate those conditions for others.

It might mean deliberate experimentation with Ts and Cs that make the most sense for students. The flexibility of zero-hours contracts might make sense for many, but shouldn’t students be able to trigger more certain hours if their circumstances demand it? Similarly, shouldn’t students who have to take up placements be able to return to a job rather than lose it because of the way the demands of their particular timetable works? And shouldn’t we be paying for trade union membership for all students that want it, so that students get experience of workplace rights, advocacy and democracy they can take into later life?

It could mean a radical agenda that seeks to broaden and deepen commitment to plans on discrimination, harassment, sustainability, mental health and culture on campus. If a significant number of student staff on campus attended paid lectures, courses or workshops on being good bystanders, understanding the processes for raising misconduct or fostering mentally healthy workplace cultures, a university’s ability to implement these types of cross-cutting agendas, in conjunction with its students’ union, throughout its student body, would improve immediately.

It probably should mean being determined to expand the number and depth of student employees on campus. Doing so can often be a bit of a hassle in comparison to employing a full time, permanent staff member from the local area that doesn’t get flaky as soon as exams season comes around, or phoning a temp agency. But having more students involved in the running of services makes those services more responsive, causes those running them to better understand the contemporary student experience, and puts more money into more students’ pockets – which is always going to be a good thing. There are lots of professional services jobs right now on jobs.ac.uk that both can and should be carried out by students.

And let’s not assume that students can only be at the “bottom” of a rung – plenty of hospitality operations run with well developed student supervisor and student manager roles that provide valuable experience, and aren’t replicated often enough in on-campus roles. Why aren’t more students leaving on-campus roles with technical training or additional qualifications under their belt? And can we be more ambitious about how many could be in the future?

When students leave our employ, we should have university-wide strategies and standards for exit. This ought to ensure that students are supported to fully and effectively reflect on the skills and competencies they have gained, patching that kind of learning and reflection into their own careers service as appropriate.

Maybe what’s bad gets gone

Not every university and SU would want to fully centralise all of their student recruitment and employment support for students. Many would want to consider how departments within the SU and university might be able to call on support for processes related to student workers, and will want to consider how a central function might assure a level of compliance with processes and standards demanded by this kind of strategic agenda. In any event, this will need some level of central resource.

But it might end up paying for itself. From a wider perspective, most SUs and universities I’ve met do use external employment agencies for administration work – we might regard it a shame that in principle, these opportunities are not more often being filled by students. Whether filled by students or not, there is both a considerable VAT leakage and a “profit” leakage to the external firm. If a university was shown to be spending just £0.5m on admin temps through agencies there would be a £100k VAT leakage plugged alone that could fund the recruitment and selection, “on job” support and exit improvements suggested above – the sort of resource that should be retained within a university community.

Once benefits of this sort are realised on campus, universities and their SUs should then consider the way in which the standards suggested here could apply to suppliers, advertisers, exhibitors and partners – especially in the local area. Those seeking access to the student and staff market that the university and its SU represents ought to be interested in partnerships that improve their products, reduce their costs and improve the quality and value of the casual staff they have working for them. Good work should be something a university uses its scale and power to spread.

I’m aware, of course, that many universities do aspects of the above. Some have “temping” agencies and others employ substantial numbers of students in catering or communications. Many run internship schemes in professional services areas and some doctoral colleges have sophisticated schemes for the recruitment and selection of PGRs that teach. But I’m unaware of a university that integrates all its efforts in this area – has big targets on increasing the number of student jobs, works in partnership with its SU on recruitment and selection, has evidence of the impact of its supply chain work in the local area, boasts of the substantial cash back into students’ pockets and has bold ambitions to do more to be an even better place to work for students.

With major concerns growing about the supply of casuals in the labour market – especially in hospitality and administration in large towns and cities – now is a great time for universities and their SUs to resolve to actively and purposely decide to create more “good work”. The signal it would send to applicants is positive, the benefits to current students and graduates would be significant, and the potential long term influence that “good work” would have on both local areas and wider society could be huge.

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