Is the student experience out of time?

Jim Dickinson considers the complexity of the lives that some students are leading, and asks if some efforts to enable access are doing more harm than good.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I tend to use bouts of insomnia to clear out my spam/junk folder, and the other day in amongst the dredge was a tool that promised to make me “at least 15 per cent more efficient” at handling my email.

It’s obviously moot as to whether or not I would need that tool if it wasn’t for endless emails offering me that tool, but it did serve as a reminder that while many of these hacks and apps have indeed made me more efficient over the years, the generated gains have tended to benefit my employers rather than me.

It was also a reminder that sometimes what we think of personal efficiency is really just unsustainable overworking. I can’t be on the only person that does this – you have a lot on, you get up half an hour earlier here, eek a bit more of the day out via caffeine there, sacrifice decent food or time with friends and family, and instead of reverting when the crunch passes you maintain the artificial capacity extensions as a baseline when taking on commitments – never noticing that you’re hurtling towards a brick wall until it’s (almost) too late.

I’m not moaning about Wonkhe here – much of this is about that thing we do when we’re passionate about our work that causes us to undercook the amount of time we need to cope with curveballs – but it did get me thinking about where we are with the student experience, and in particular what we still call the “full-time” student experience.

Don’t put your head on my shoulder

I’ve long been suspicious of the Oxbridge assumption of being able to avoid paid employment during term-time – that sort of “full immersion” instinctively feels like an unattainable luxury that’s only possible through the recruitment of a mixture of a majority of students that can afford it, and a minority of Charlie Buckets who are given golden tickets to pretend they can for a few years.

I also kneejerk against the idea of being able to “escape” from the real world for three or four years, and tend to scramble for the ample evidence that shows us that those who undertake some part-time work at university tend to have better outcomes.

But there has to be a limit. Over the summer I met a new student officer whose PGT year had involved balancing full-time study with working full-time, highly unsociable hours in a warehouse. Other than notions of survivor-bias grit developed through piercingly negative experiences of workplace treatment and academic dismissiveness about the situation, it was hard to spot an upside.

That’s not to say that I would ban that student from being able to make the choice to do what she did. But it is to say that the sector may need to ask itself if it’s wise to make it generally possible to do what she did, or assume that others can or should. Are universities, in other words, becoming too flexible?

Sink me in a river of tears

In its note on the cost of living crisis, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator notes that more students than ever are likely to have to work part-time to help fund their studies. As such:

…providers need to be clear what they mean by “full-time” or “part-time” study. It’s important to be clear about the teaching and learning opportunities that are delivered in person at specified times, and how much students can engage with more flexibly. This enables students to make an informed decision about their availability for work.”

On one level, that makes lots of sense. Insofar as we should avoid rigid rules or a ban on part-time work, it makes most sense to give students a guide on the amount of time they’ll need to put in, and let them decide from there. But on another level, there’s a problem.

The framing in that paragraph (perhaps quite rightly) is that studies come first, and a student is to use information from the provider to determine their availability for work.

But what if the raw reality of the funding situation is that students need providers to understand students’ work commitments, so they can determine students’ availability for study? And what if, despite everyone’s best efforts, they’re not reasonably actually compatible?

Changes made at short notice, in particular to timetabling, can be stressful and difficult to accommodate for students who need to work. When changes unavoidably have to be made at short notice, it’s important that providers take a flexible approach to reduce the impact on students with work or caring commitments.

That also makes lots of sense. When you’re juggling commitments, it’s disruption and uncertainty that hits students in access and participation categories hardest – and makes the already precarious situation facing parents or those with wider employment or caring commitments throw their hands in the air with frustration.

But what if, even with warning, it just can’t be done without endless “pile-up” extensions or a subtle dilution of standards?

And that’s if you can get and hold down a job. As OIA also says:

Students on courses with high contact hours, and those with caring responsibilities, a disability or health condition, or restrictions on their visas, may be unable to work many – or any – hours whilst studying. Financial pressures are likely to have even more of an impact on them. Providers can help by making sure that adverts for jobs available in its own services or facilities are easy to find.

Again – great news. Push your part-time job ads at those that need the convenient work the most.

But what if, at the end of the day, there is just too much need and not enough jobs? Is it reasonable to expect students to have to shoulder the responsibility of working that out – often in the teeth of a perception of having failed? And if not, is it reasonable for HE and its staff and services to bend so far and water down so thin that the student gets to graduation but hasn’t really achieved what we pretend they have?

This could be the best place yet

Let’s imagine that the need to become more personally efficient is being driven by students having to live further and further away from campus, and having to take on more and more hours of paid employment. And park for a few paragraphs that lost in any personal “efficiency” drive is stuff like the wider student experience, serendipity, activity that aids belonging and a cushion for the stuff that just happens.

To try to get a sense of the pressures of the pressures we’re talking about here, I revisited the dataset from national survey work we undertook on the student experience with GTI/Cybil back in 2019/20, and took a close look at two factors – journey time to campus during term-time, and (regular) hours worked in any part-time job.

In that study, just under 15 percent of students had a travel time of 50 minutes or more (one way) to campus. That proportion fell to 8 percent for those from private school, was true for just over 1 in 10 white students and 1 in 5 BAME students – and had a clear relationship with feeling part of a community and feelings of belonging too. Of those who said they had a large group of friends, just 8.7 per cent had that sort of commute. Of those with “no real friends”, the percentage was almost a quarter.

On the part-time work factor, I took a look at those working over 15 hours a week – a figure I’ve seen repeatedly over the years as representing a threshold over which the student experience and outcomes start to suffer. 16.1 per cent of students in our study were working more than 15 hours a week – with that percentage inevitably much lower for those who said they “belonged” at university and much higher for those that said they didn’t. Feelings of loneliness had a similar relationship.

Tellingly, just over 1 in 10 of students with a “large” group of friends were working over 15 hours a week – but over 1 in 5 of those with “no friends” were doing the same. And the impacts weren’t just social – with those considering dropping out significantly more likely to be in the over 15 hours a week group.

But you must overcome your fears

So what is going on when time gets squeezed by part-time work or long commutes? Is it that flexibilities like online lectures and asynchronous student support permit more personal efficiency and access? Or, like me and my 4am alarms, does the sector kid itself, failing to notice what’s being lost as it baselines that unsustainability into the experience?

We know from the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience survey this year that not all part-time work is equal – with students from some backgrounds regarding it as a learning opportunity and some as a financial lifeline. It’s safe to assume that the nature and hours of the work will differ by background too, as will the ability of a given student to pause or quit when the deadlines pile up.

If you think of a student’s week as finite, student experience expert Mike Larkin’s reading of results from survey work on belonging last year points to a kind of hierarchy of activity when time becomes short(er). When half of students say they are prioritising “balancing life with work or study” and 15 per cent say they felt “excluded from my university because of my financial circumstances”, they may not only mean matters of identity and class.

In these scenarios time matters too – (often first in family) students first sacrifice social or extra-curricular activity as luxuries despite the clear benefits and links to outcomes, we bank those as efficiency and access miracles while ignoring what those students are missing, and then when it all gets tighter still we wonder why they either cheat, have atrocious mental health or worse outcomes. As Larkin puts it:

Most lecturers teaching in the front line will be familiar with some students complaining about deadlines where they find they have run out of time to complete a crucial assignment properly. Some staff may ask their students why this is and get a multitude of answers. In my experience these can range from financial issues, accommodation problems, caring responsibilities, commuting, and particularly excessive hours in part-time jobs.

Other less frequent ones I found were a punishing schedule of training for the Olympics or hiding from paramilitaries. The one thing they had in common was lack of time as the key resource. They feel the tasks are becoming impossible as achieving a good degree fades before their eyes. It should be clear to anyone observing that stress and anxiety are the result.

Worst of all is when universities take those students who struggle to find the time for campus study sessions or extra ciriculars and rationalise that they’re choosing against them deliberately. “They already have friends” or “but they have family commitments” are both probably true, but they also happen to be the kind of thing you’d say in a survey if you’d internalised the failure to find belonging as your fault.

Don’t make me feel any colder

It would hardly be an example of an original thought from me to argue that the sector needs to put much more effort into understanding what students do with their week in that vast void between formal episodes of teaching – that space where friendships are fostered, part-time work is undertaken, independent study is attempted and where most of the learning is supposed to happen.

Doing so would help universities design timetables, discuss transport, set up study skills sessions and and even amend assessment strategies.

But my note of caution would be to avoid taking that intel and using it to make it just-about possible to succeed when you have no time and you’re miles away from campus. The sector tells itself it’s doing the right thing when a thinner than ever student experience gets delivered for a student on the edge, and is pleased on balance when an international student and their cheque appears with a family in tow without anywhere to live. Everyone muddles through. But there has to be a line, and if we’re honest, for too many students it was probably crossed a long time ago.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m starting to have some sympathy for the Oxbridge position. Maybe the sector should set a limit on things like hours of part-time work and location, do all it can to help within those limits, and then have little academic sympathy if a student breaches them. And if that exacerbates access or funding issues – then so be it. You can’t live 300 miles away, work 50 hours a week and be a full-time student. So where is the line, exactly?

For all the chatter about the possibility of blended learning, it still feels important that full-time, in attendance students are able to enjoy at least some of the inefficiencies that those modes imply. It feels more important still that access to that afternoon in the library or sports tournament isn’t determined by your background or bank balance. But honestly? It feels even worse to recruit and pretend.

Notwithstanding that mature numbers really did collapse over the decade, it’s easy to argue that in reality, part-time and distance grew. Admitting and quantifying that, and drawing a line at how “part-time” and “distance” we think it can reasonably get, would help the sector to both avoid inculcating terrible time management habits, and avoid pushing students beyond breaking point.

2 responses to “Is the student experience out of time?

  1. The whole sector needs to step back and assess time ‘management’, not just for students, the latest ‘hybrid working’ fad suits some but leaves many University buildings without Fire Wardens, PEEP’s/GEEP’s cover or First Aiders. Hopefully the student idiocy we’ve seen already, malicious activation of Fire Alarms and head down ‘smart’ (dumb-arse) phone usage whilst wandering in the road (public highways, not just Uni roads) will die down quickly, though without older campus experienced students around to guide and influence I fear we may end up with dead and injured s-too-dense, especially in those areas where the local population has become accustomed to not having foolishly stupid students around.

  2. There are university financial aid programs in the US that limit work hours per week to 15-20 hours. The wages are subsidized by the overall program to give offices around the uni an incentive to hire students, but they are only subsidized for that number of hours per student. There is clearly a need to develop these financial aid programs further in the UK, going beyond loans.

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