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Part-time work is here to stay, but how can it be better?

  • 13 December 2023
  • By Dr Adrian Wright, Dr Mark Wilding, Mary Lawler and Louise Hoole
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Dr Adrian Wright, Dr Mark Wilding, Mary Lawler and Louise Hoole, from the School of Business, University of Central Lancashire.

HEPI research suggests more universities are encouraging part-time work and that more students are undertaking paid employment to cope with the increased cost of living. Alongside this, research has documented the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on student belongingness, as decisions made from financial necessity can impact students’ connection and engagement with their University.

Research by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), presents initial findings of a cross-section of 271 students, analysing their work experiences against the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)’s ‘Good Work’ framework. Our findings revealed challenging experiences at work, that influence dimensions of student experience such as access, community, and balance between university and work life. Therefore, we consider what we can do to support students in their part-time work.

Firstly, while we recognise that student experiences of part-time work can differ, our study’s participants worked considerably more than the average of 13.5 hours per week reported in HEPI’s Student Academic Experience Survey, working an average of 18 hours a week, with 29% working more than 20 hours a week. These were characterised by jobs in low-paid sectors, unrelated to their course, such as health and social care, retail, hospitality, and manufacturing.

So, why are students working so many hours?

Part-time work has become a necessity, not a choice, for many students, so it should not be understood by universities as a lesser priority than studying itself. Although 34% of participants reported taking a job for career development and 32% for socialising, we found that paying bills (52%), paying university fees (29%), and avoiding debt (24%) were other competing reasons for undertaking part-time work. We found that students mostly found jobs through friends and family (36%) or employer websites (30%), suggesting work is accessed through personal networks or on their own, despite the University’s attempts to moderate the quality of work students access.

Turning to the quality of jobs, 45% of participants felt fairly paid, 31% responded that their work matched their skills, while only 19% felt their work supported them in their future careers. Similarly, only a minority of participants reported that their work was meaningful (31%) or productive (35%), with a perceived lack of support from colleagues (26%) and managers (26%). These findings suggest students engage in work that may be isolating and unsupportive, with little opportunity for enhancing future career prospects. Perhaps even more concerningly we found just under half of our participants (45%) described experiencing stress, anxiety, depression or physical injury caused by or made worse by work.

Part-time work has become a necessity, not a choice, for many students

These initial findings suggest policy and practical recommendations are required to enable students to access good quality jobs that enhance future career prospects and support their university experience.

To improve student choice about whether and how much to work, we support the recommendations in the Student Academic Experience Survey for government to examine ways in which maintenance loans can be reviewed promptly, and increased in line with inflation, alongside targeted funding for those most in need of financial support. Furthermore, government should embrace good work policy reforms including legislating for good work principles to be embedded within organisations as a condition for future government support.  

Universities are well-placed to play an infrastructural role in working with businesses, local government, and unions to promote initiatives that facilitate good work. HEIs can also make in-house adjustments such as clear timetabling and rolling assignment deadlines, alongside extended hardship support. More support can also be provided in promoting jobs with employers that can evidence their alignment with good work principles and encouraging discussions at course level about labour markets and employment support. 

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  1. Ronald says:

    THE question that universities should surely be asking of themselves (from an educational point of view) is this: How might we enable our students to derive educational value from their work experiences, no matter how intrinsically limited that they may appear to be (eg through writing reflective statements, through discerning possible links to their study programmes, through forming critical observations on work practices and roles …). In this way, universities can both (a) contribute to students’ lifewide learning (as it has been termed in the literature) and (b) enable students to form more of an integrated life-experience narrative across their academic and wider experiences but also (c) universities can help in maintaining students’ motivations and commitment to their study programmes and so avoid rising levels of non-completion.

    Ron Barnett

  2. Albert Wright says:

    This is a very “academic” and undergraduate centred approach to part time work for students and is in danger of taking us in the wrong direction and alienating many members of the public who will spend a lifetime doing these jobs, mainly for the money they can earn to help them have a better standard of living – precisely the same reason as for many students.

    The difference is that for most of the students, the jobs are temporary. Better part time jobs for all should be our banner, not better part time jobs for now for the already priviliged.

    It is a bonus for those students who find work that is fairly paid, matches their skills and is related to the career path they seek.

    I think it is a waste of time and money and totally unnecessary for Universities to seek and supply more course related work for part time students. We already have Apprenticeship Degrees, sandwich courses and employer paid for degrees.

    I do not support the statement “…policy and practical recommendations are required to enable students to access good quality jobs that enhance future career prospects and support their university experience.” for those who are doing short term part time jobs for 20 hours a week during term time during austerity.

    When it comes to the “Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)’s ‘Good Work’ framework ” I would say that the targets may be worthy of support and aspirational but as many would be costly to implement, at a time of widespread hardship. the country has more immediate issues to address that would give greater benefit to more people.

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