Student part-time work is on the rise. Here’s what universities can do next

As student maintenance support and high inflation puts pressure on home and international students alike, Adrian Wright and colleagues call on universities to help students find benefits in part-time work

Adrian Wright is Associate Dean and Director of the Institute for Research into Work, Organisations and Employment in the School of Business at UCLan

Martin Lowe is a Senior Policy Insight Analyst at University of Central Lancashire

Mark Wilding is a Lecturer in HRM at the University of Central Lancashire

For many students, part time work has become a necessity, not a choice. That’s the reality we now live in.

Our Student Working Lives project, conducted at the University of Central Lancashire, considers students’ increased reliance on part-time work – and how universities are best placed to support them in acquiring good quality employment that enhances their graduate aspirations.

Last year’s Advance HE/HEPI Student Academic Experience survey highlighted that students, on average, are working 13.5 hours a week alongside their studies.

Our own research, which surveyed students studying a range of business disciplines across the university, showed that our students worked on average 18 hours a week – with home students working an average of 23 hours a week.

These were characterised by jobs in low-paid sectors, unrelated to their course, within health and social care, retail, hospitality, and manufacturing sectors.

Our research also found that over half (52 per cent) of those students undertook work to pay bills – with 29 per cent doing so in order to pay university fees.

The rising impact of the cost-of-living crisis, coupled with a real-terms reduction in maintenance support is pushing more emphasis on students to negotiate their university and non-university lives.

These conclusions, coupled with those reached by the Advance HE/HEPI survey, suggest that while universities commit significant time and resource to guiding students into suitable employment following their studies, the network of support in finding and maintaining relevant and good quality employment alongside their studies could be weak by comparison.

Sweating the asset

We recommend that universities consider how the part-time casual work that students undertake alongside their studies can become more relevant to their future careers.

Students have a wealth of skills capable of supporting the local and national skills gap presented in many sectors, and this represents a missed opportunity for a greater link up of needs.

Universities are best placed to lead the conversation in this area – utilising their role as a civic anchor in their local context to work closer with local and regional government to create better support channels for current students.

Harnessing a university’s access and participation work, considering risks relating to cost pressures and capacity issues raised in the Office for Students’ Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, this focus would provide an opportunity to map interventions to particular groups disproportionately impacted by part-time work commitments.

What is a full-time student?

With student maintenance due to fall further behind in real terms next year, an acceptance across the sector is also needed that what a typical student looks like outside the classroom has significantly changed.

Students, as low-paid part-time workers, prop up society, and local economies, often in roles considered key workers during COVID – thus the standard of work they are offered has a direct impact on the health and sustainability of cities up and down the country.

Adoption of good work principles, through centralised funding conditions and university partnership can pave the way for improved retention in work, study, and post-graduation progression.

If a student is given a positive impression of work within a region while they study, that can translate into graduate retention, in that sector, in that company, in that region once they’ve qualified.

Course teams could be developing content to encourage students to think about labour market choices and their employment options to enhance future aspirations.

Rolling assessment deadlines, clear timetabling, and assessment geared towards showcasing skills learnt in employment – alongside a structured in-programme employability curriculum, should be utilised to enable students to manage their university studies alongside part-time work and gain accessible work experience which aligns with student aspirations.

And talking to students about their part-time jobs would help to increase awareness about transferable skills and job quality.

We are planning on widening our research within the institution but would also like to continue the conversation with other universities to investigate this trend and discuss our recommendations further.

If your university has investigated the impact of part-time work on students, or if you would like to collaborate on future research into this subject, please do get in touch.

4 responses to “Student part-time work is on the rise. Here’s what universities can do next

  1. I like the idea of building courses on what part time jobs students already have:

    Blake, Joanne and Worsdale, Graham J. (2009) Incorporating the learning derived from part-time employment into undergraduate programmes: experiences from a business school, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 33:3, 191-204.

    Students undertaking employment during term time is a growing phenomenon, and whilst there is an awareness that a large proportion of our undergraduates have part‐time jobs, the type and extent of this work and the learning experiences gained is less clear. The purpose of this article is to outline research undertaken to determine the potential for students to gain academic credit for their learning from part‐time, term‐time work. This had involved an exploration of the incidence and the nature of this part‐time work, the skills developed, learning derived and the students’ ability to reflect upon this learning.

    An exploratory approach was used, quantitative research providing the numerical data of the level of participation in term‐time employment, with qualitative exploration to gain insight into the students’ ability to understand, articulate and reflect upon the learning that is taking place within work and gain an insight into participants’ ideas, views and motivations. The research provides substantial evidence of the engagement in part‐time work and demonstrates a clear overview of the development of personal and social competencies along with key skills and job‐specific knowledge. This has led to the validation and introduction of an intermediate‐level Work Based Learning module within the University of Huddersfield Business School, available as an alternative to a current core module, and which was to be evaluated during the course of the academic year 2007/2008.

    1. I’m struggling to see how this would have worked for my youngest son who studied History, and worked night shift stacking shelves at Sainos. Still he worked and had a better experience than many who simply borrowed as much as they could and pi$$ed it, and their time, against the wall many ending up in a deeper well of despair and depression due to the huge debts hanging over them…

  2. This is a very important aspect of students reality. I’m glad you highlighted students challenges. I agree that universities should lead this discussions

  3. I believe we/Universities should be doing more to support or find self employed roles or “side hustles” for students that align with what the Student is studying. This would obviously bring in an income for the student but more importantly give much better employability skills- courses could give extra credit based on setting something up that links to the course.

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