At universities across the country, increasing numbers of students are taking on part-time work alongside their studies
It’s driven by the need to cover basic costs not met by government maintenance loans – a survey conducted by Endsleigh in 2015 indicated that eight out of ten students are now working part-time to get by.
For universities and SUs as employers, the rise in the number of students seeking employment provides them with a logical source of labour, with student staff able to cover a range of roles from open day ambassadors to working behind student bars. Done well, such employment opportunities can work to the benefit of both parties.
Students can be offered stable and fairly remunerated employment during-term time, providing them with meaningful workplace experience and the ability to cover their costs, whilst also being granted the flexibility necessary for work being undertaken alongside academic studies.
But too often, students can be taken advantage of as a captive source of cheap labour. It takes little insight to see the temptation for employers to exploit student staff, and how complacency in regard to their treatment can take root. Universities looking to cut costs can take advantage of lower Government minimum wage rates for younger workers and can employ them on casual contracts, treating them simply as “workers” rather than employees, taking on only the bare minimum of legal responsibilities.
With the insecure and transient nature of such employment making student staff easily replaceable, a lack of awareness among students of their statutory rights and historically low Trade Union membership among young workers, it is easy to imagine why universities may assume they have been gifted with a compliant workforce who are unlikely to raise serious complaints about their terms and conditions.
In my experience as President of Durham Students’ Union, the many anecdotes I heard painted a clear picture of how this arrogance of behalf of the employer could have real consequences for the students I represented, and encouraged me to take up the issue of student worker rights. I was told of the late or incorrect payment of wages, a lack of the necessary training and development, corners cut on health & safety and timesheets mysteriously going missing.
Recent events at the University of Birmingham have brought such issues into sharp focus there, with a bungled roll-out of a new payroll system leaving many student unpaid for their work and the University being forced to dish “goodwill” vouchers to affected staff following pressure from a student group, University of Birmingham Student Workers (UBSW), formed to campaign for justice and fair treatment of student workers at the University.
The rise of the “student worker” presents serious challenges, both for the students concerned and for those in universities and SUs responsible for representing their best interests. Universities and their careers services remain primarily focused on the attainment of gold-plated internships and glamorous grad schemes, with far less attention given to the welfare of the student working shifts at the campus café.
Within the student movement too, a significant amount of commendable campaigning work has been undertaken by SUs and NUS to address the spiralling costs faced by students and to lobby for greater access to financial support, but alongside this, the reality of the ever-growing number of student workers must be accepted, and more must be done to see their rights enforced and their wellbeing ensured.
Whilst equally worthy campaigns on outsourcing and solidarity with those taking industrial action may be more likely to grab the headlines, the everyday exploitation of our own student members must be put firmly on the agenda.
What is to be done?
There is much impactful work that officers and SUs can embark up in support of student workers on their campuses. The information gap faced by student entering employment can be tackled through campaigns that start serious conversations with students about the legal rights they can expect in their workplace.
Officers and unions can take advantage of ready-made opportunities and resources presented by initiatives such as National Student Employment Week and TUC Young Workers Month to encourage their members to be proactive in knowing and exercising their rights at work. Sabbatical officers can utilise their platform and access to senior university decision-makers to raise issues and amplify the concerns of student workers on the ground, forcing institutions to take issues seriously without being in the firing line for potential lost shifts or a label of “troublemaker”.
Finally, we can take the step of supporting student workers in organising and gaining meaningful workplace representation. Officers and SUs are likely to find willing allies among relevant trade unions, with whom they can work closely to educate on the benefits of trade union membership and representation, often available at a reduced rate to student members.
Whilst UCU campaigns on casualisation address the broader issues at play, SUs at University of East Anglia (UEA) and Durham have led the way in signing recognition agreements with GMB Trade Union, allowing their student staff to access membership for free through funded partnership agreements. Such agreements benefit both SUs and Trade Unions alike, with students gaining benefits and representation from membership at a reasonable price, whilst the Trade Union gains a much-needed source of young members to help address the ticking time-bomb of the movement’s aging activist base.
The rise of the student workers is here to stay, and student worker rights are an emerging issue for hard-pressed students across the country. If universities are to fulfil their duty not just as centres of academic excellence, but as good employers too, then their voices must not go ignored.