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A 32-hour week: sensible or nonsensical?

  • 24 September 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

At the Labour Party Conference yesterday, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:

I can tell you today that the next Labour government will reduce the average full time working week to 32 hours within a decade. A shorter working week with no loss of pay.

Predictions of a shorter working week have been made time and time again over the years. Robots, for example, were meant to make our working hours much shorter.

It hasn’t really happened (yet), especially in the UK, for lots of reasons, including: low productivity, a loosely-regulated labour markets and bad employers but also, more positively, because some people lucky enough to have roles they enjoy have sometimes wanted to work longer hours for personal fulfilment, as well promotion and extra pay. No one lucky enough to be elected as a national politician, for example, works anything like 32 hours a week.

If the 32-hour week does finally happen, there would be profound consequences for university staff and other educators, many of whom work closer to 60 hours a week than 30. Our recent report on the mental health of higher education staff shows some of the negative consequences of this. A shorter working week could ease such challenges (though conceivably it could also risk exaggerating the differences between those on secure contracts and the precariat).

But this blog is about something else: the potential impact of a 32-hour working week on students. HEPI and Advance HE have collected by far and away the best data on students’ working patterns through our large annual Student Academic Experience Survey.

This shows that many students, particularly those training to join the NHS, currently work for (unhealthy) amounts of time some way above 40 hours a week.

Does the new commitment to a 32-hour week apply to them? If not, we will be expecting some students to be working longer than the staff that teach them – at least during term time. If instead we expect them to reduce their hours, then their education will need to be very much more efficient (squeezing the current 46 hours work into 32 hours, in the case of students on subjects allied to medicine) or spread over a larger number of years.

After all, the Quality Assurance Agency has, in the past, said a full-time course should occupy a student for around 40 hours a week, in line with many full-time contracts. So it seems likely that 32 hours would necessitate some recalibration of courses.

Vice-chancellors up and down the land might well be concerned by what the new announcement means for their institutions, especially as it comes on top of other pronouncements at the same conference that could also affect their income, such as the (re)confirmation of the abolition of tuition fees.

But there is another way to look at the whole issue. On average, students currently work only 31 hours a week yet they still emerge from education as highly employable, generally receiving higher earnings and having less risk of unemployment than non-graduates.

So another way of looking at the issue of shorter working weeks is to recognise that it could mean everyone coming to embrace the healthy work:life balance of the average undergraduate.

1 comment

  1. I think that we are misusing the term “work” here. Study isn’t the same as regular paid employment. It is more akin to entrepreneurial endeavour. It would be even more so if we could break away from traditional degree course practices and allow students to complete qualifications at a pace that suits them. Some would complete faster by being willing to work more intensively. Others could accommodate family and income considerations and build their degrees (and subsequent learning) at a different pace.

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