Research: Working while studying “a challenge” in current climate

Working and studying at the same time is often seen as a door opener to career opportunities. But recent data from our London School of Economics (LSE) Change Makers research initiative suggest that students who work part-time think that their jobs have a negative impact on their studies and extracurricular life. 

“I applied [for my current role] because I was interested in the position, but also for financial reasons. I don’t think I would have necessarily got the job if it wasn’t for financial reasons,” describes Marie (which is not their real name), who recently finished their undergraduate degree. They have held a part-time job since their days as a college student. 

It is estimated that over 65% of students at UK universities work part-time, but LSE holds no data on the way this affects its own students. LSE’s official policy allows for 15 hours of part-time work per week in term-time. While international students face the limitations of restrictive immigration policy when it comes to getting a job, UK and EU students do not face the same constraints. And much of the teaching staff advises against working: “I told my academic mentor that I was working at the beginning of the year and he told me that I should be treating university as a full-time job. It’s not that I really love working at a restaurant!” notes Clara, a second-year student.

Students’ perceived impact of part-time work on their prospects changes dramatically depending on the level of pay they receive. Better paying jobs are associated with fewer working hours and solidified career prospects. On the other hand, part-time jobs with lower pay are typically in hospitality and customer-facing positions, with limited relevance to students’ goals. To understand these differences, we conducted a survey among undergraduate students at Change Makers. Only 8% of the respondents who earned under £8/hour thought that their jobs would be relevant to their future career, compared to 38% of those making over £13/hour.

“I’m saying to myself that after I graduate, I’m not doing any waitressing because I’ve done way too much. Customer service teaches you a lot and gives me a lot of transferable skills. In terms of directly [improving job prospects], I’m not too sure… I don’t think so,” Clara told us.

Our study further shows a perceived negative impact on academic performance among those making less money: 70% of them thought they would prepare better for class if they did not have to work, compared to 45% of those making more than £13/hour. Half of the students earning less than £8/hour thought their grades would improve if they didn’t work; they feel they struggle to concentrate on their coursework. 

While the benefits of attending a high-tier university in terms of future income are well recorded, the time spent at university is also formative in terms of student social networking. The findings we detail demonstrate that accepting an offer from a top university is not sufficient to overcome class gaps among students. 

“Having a part-time job sometimes becomes a bit of a taboo topic. Some colleagues of mine avoid mentioning their jobs to friends that come from wealthier families as they fear social exclusion. Budgeting isn’t sexy and I think it would help if LSE acknowledged not only the ethnic diversity of its student body but also its social diversity,” Daniel, a third-year student, explains.

The stark contrast in the responses between students in higher- and lower-paying jobs is that these differences are replicated within the working community. Accessing these better-paying jobs can be a challenge: research assistantships at the university are highly competitive. Other positions that could equally be high-paying are difficult to come by without contacts within the desired industry. 

A building in the City of London. Credit: Will Durrant.

Students don’t expect the university to step in and cover their expenses. They would, however, appreciate a better understanding by universities that students have multiple responsibilities in their schedules. Those who work within the university know they are fortunate and would like the same kind of flexibility for their classmates: the LSE pays at least London Living Wage, and university managers usually understand timetable clashes and busy exam seasons. The data show that the impact of working while studying is more positive for those that have, essentially, ‘good jobs’.

Most of the students we talked to are now facing extreme uncertainty. Nobody knows whether part-time jobs are on the table once the next academic year begins. Often, students work jobs in the hospitality sector, where job losses have surpassed 200,000. The UK higher education sector will endure losses of £3 to £19 billion, with a consequential impact on temporary jobs on campus. Students who need greater economic support are expected to struggle the most.

Our study sheds light on the extent of the challenge faced by working students. It also showcases the different realities lived by those who can afford to attend university without working, and those who can’t. Universities need to recognise these difficulties and find better approaches to support their student bodies, or campuses stand to lose whatever diversity they have managed to gain.

Quotes have been edited for clarity.

Feature image: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash.

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