The cost of living crisis is severe for students from lower-income backgrounds.Students who are unable to count on parental support to fill the “cash gap” – the gap between the cost of study and the amount of student loan received – can find themselves working in excess of twenty hours per week to be able to continue their studies.
A recent Sutton Trust study found that 27 per cent of students have taken up a job or increased hours to meet financial commitments, while the University of Manchester’s Student Union’s report revealed that 32 per cent of their students work part time and 59 per cent are currently seeking work.
While universities actively encourage students to gain work experience to enhance their employability, but this discourse often obfuscates the troubling realities of work.
We researched the experiences of students from post-1992 universities working zero-hour contracts in hospitality. Worryingly, we found that student experiences of work can be more negative than positive and can affect not only academic performance and wellbeing, but also impact students’ long-term attitudes to work.
What happens when students go to work?
We found that students seek out zero-hour contract hospitality jobs because they believe it will provide the flexibility they need to fit around a university schedule. But in practice many find the flexibility is employer-driven with power relations skewed towards the employer’s interest.
While students can gain useful transferable skills from hospitality employment, flexible contracts and poor working conditions can cause income instability and feelings of job insecurity and replaceability at work.
Feeling undervalued by employers and frequently experiencing anti-social behaviour from customers further shapes the student working experience. Students reported feeling vulnerable, lacking confidence in their interpersonal relationships with managers, and inadvertently deprioritising university commitments by placing employer needs above their own.
For those with a limited or absent financial safety net, quitting an exploitative work environment is rarely an option.
And with post-Brexit and pandemic-induced staff shortages in the hospitality sector, students are increasingly being used to fill labour shortages, which can cause extra pressure. The students in our study often exceeded twenty hours of work a week despite many universities advising against working over sixteen as students. What’s more – they do not feel they have the job security to turn down shifts.
It wasn’t so much a choice, it’s more you’re shifted to do the shifts so you go to work, but then next day you’ve got university.
I got back and my boss had been like “can you work the next two nights?” – and I was like, “I can’t, I’ve got a hand-in” – and she was like, “there’s no other staff to cover you.” In the end, I managed to get one of the nights covered, and massively rushed the essay. It showed because I got a lower mark for it.
If I can’t commit to certain things because of university, always in the back of my mind there is always that “oh well he could give the shifts I have now to somebody else.”
[M]y grades would be better [if I didn’t work]. I would have more time for studying. But financially this is not an option.
We found that students were reluctant to open up to their university tutors about financial troubles due to shame or not knowing if help was available for working students. The latter is a reasonable assumption as currently assignment extensions or timetable changes for work pressures are not common practice across the sector.
What can universities do for student-workers?
We’ve launched a research-informed initiative ‘Hospitality Now! Students for Hospitality, Hospitality for Students’, which brings together a range of stakeholders to improve the experience of students who work, provides guidelines for universities, and student FAQs. Here are four ways in which universities can better help working students.
Appreciate the particular challenges student-workers face and acknowledge this within university pastoral support.
- Incorporate solutions for the challenges students undertaking term-time, often precarious, work face in Universities’ duty of care to students.
- Train staff to be be cognisant of the challenges student-workers face and how these may manifest in problematic student engagement behaviours (e.g. low attendance, tiredness in class, problems focussing, stress, late submissions) and help students combine work with study so that work does not undermine their educational performance.
Establish processes for student-workers to share their distinct work-based needs and grievances.
- Categorise student-workers as a distinct student group needing dedicated support. Students must know that their working lives matter to the university and that they can report issues and get support and advice on negotiating with employers.
- Create space on campus and develop administrative processes (both formal and informal) for students to report employment issues with an identified university (or students’ union) team, and actively promote these initiatives to students.
- Alongside hardship funds, consider non-financial ways of helping working students. This could be tactical timetabling (e.g. days clear of classes, classes less spread out through the week) and extension policies (e.g. acknowledging stress from work as an acceptable reason for extension).
Prepare students better: Provide training, counselling and support.
- Provide students with awareness training of working rights and equip them with skills to address issues (e.g. training during welcome week, information sheets about zero-hour contracts available through Employability/Careers teams, and develop FAQs).
- Include in the student service provision tailored counselling and advice for student-workers aimed at alleviating stress arising from work pressures.
Work collaboratively with local businesses and unions, and promote good student employment practice.
- Develop university-employer-student fora where issues can be aired and local employers can advertise jobs.
- Promote good student employment practices through collaborative work with employers. Influence local businesses to improve their student employment practice using schemes such as Good Student Employer Charter and the 8F Framework of Good Principles in Student Employment)
- Actively promote those employers who do display good student employer practice in University media.
Widening participation is important. For students from less privileged backgrounds, staying in university is becoming increasingly challenging as it entails a struggle between meeting financial demands and dedicating the necessary time to studies. Our research evidences that working while studying can undermine efforts for social mobility and affect students’ confidence about their future.
By bringing together universities, employers, and working students to create better communication channels between all parties, a better system can emerge.