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Has the student experience bifurcated into ‘two nations’?

  • 13 June 2024
  • By Nick Hillman
  • HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, takes a look at the standout findings of this year’s HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey (authored by Jonathan Neves, Josh Freeman, Rose Stephenson and Dr Peny Sotiropoulou), which is being launched today at the HEPI Annual Conference.

The Student Academic Experience Survey comes of age

Back at base, we tend to think of the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey (or SAES) as a flagship piece of output. Produced annually and originally the brainchild of HEPI’s President and founder, Bahram Bekhradnia, it is now in its eighteenth year.

That means, if the survey were a person, it would be just old enough to vote, get a tattoo and play Grand Theft Auto. And it could continue drinking caffeinated energy drinks even after the (likely) new Labour Government takes power.

I have been heavily involved with the survey for more than half its life, since 2014. It has been fascinating to work on and to oversee for lots of reasons:

  • We have built up a picture of changes over time – for example, the data on whether students’ prior expectations of higher education are being met were never uninteresting but they came into their own as a way of tracking the student experience during and after COVID.
  • The survey reaches places other surveys do not – it is genuinely astounding that the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey remains the only reliable measure of undergraduates’ contact hours and workload. (This is staggering in part because policymakers are obsessed with contact hours – see the new Tory manifesto, for instance – yet no official data is collated on them.)
  • The survey is big (deep and wide and tall to quote Roddy Frame), allowing for new topics to be added and old ones to be removed either temporarily or permanently. (If any student out there is looking for a potential thesis idea, there is a brilliant project to be done tracking the survey since it began – we have tended to limit ourselves to looking back only over a decade or thereabouts, but all the old surveys are available on our website and it is possible to take a longer time horizon – the first ever wave of the survey is here.)

Each year, we change the main focus of the write-up of the results. This is not premeditated: we collect the data and then follow our noses.


This year, while different people will find different things to focus on, the key finding seems abundantly clear, at least to me: the student experience is bifurcating. Academic workload bounces up and down a little over time and differs by discipline / course, but the overall picture tends to be fairly consistent. What has changed radically, however, is the amount of paid work being undertaken by the poorer half of students alongside their studies.

Throughout the first decade and a bit that the survey existed, the percentage of full-time undergraduate students undertaking paid employment in term time was in the thirties: for example, the total was 39% in the first year of the survey (2006) and 39% in the last pre-COVID year (2019), while it was in the lower thirties in between. The proportion fell back to 34% in the most badly affected COVID year (2021), given the labour market disruption, but there were then two sharp increases, between 2021 and 2022 and between 2022 and 2023, amounting to a total rise of over 20 percentage points.

In other words, in just two years, we moved from around three-in-10 students doing paid work during term-time to almost six-in-10. This year, the total has gone up a small notch more (from 55% to 56%), while the average number of hours of paid employment done by these students has increased, reaching 14.5 hours a week. This is more than two hours extra each week compared to the results for 2022. So there are more students doing paid work and, among those in this category, the average number of hours of paid work has increased.

If you tot up the average number of weekly timetabled contact hours (16.1), the average number of hours spent in independent study (13.6) and the average number of hours on placements / fieldwork (6.6) with the average number of hours of paid employment among the 56% of full-time undergraduates who do any paid work (14.5), it adds up to over 50 hours a week.

This is more than most people with jobs are allowed to work. Full-time study is meant to be comparable to full-time work but, under the ‘working time directive’ / ‘working time regulations’, the Government says ‘You cannot work more than 48 hours a week on average’ (or over 40 hours if you are under 18, as a few students are).

A bit ‘on the side’

Does this matter? A bit of paid work on the side provides useful experiences, extra cash and forces students to be organised. One might say it delivers the sorts of benefits that the rehashed National Service idea is designed to inculcate. And it can be especially beneficial if it is in anyway linked to a student’s course or future career.

The increase in undergraduates’ paid work certainly confounds the idea that students are snowflakes who melt at the first sign of challenge or contact with the so-called ‘real world’: in fact, they are generally so resilient that they go out and find work, often at anti-social hours, even though their academic studies are meant to be ‘full-time’, rather than dropping out in larger numbers.

The increase in undergraduates’ paid work certainly confounds the idea that students are snowflakes who melt at the first sign of challenge or contact with the so-called ‘real world’

This all matters in part because the current situation is radically altering the student experience. We are increasingly seeing student life bifurcating between one group of relatively well-off students who have enough energy to become steeped in extra-curricular activities, enough money to consider unpaid internships and enough time to follow a sensible work:life balance while another group are working unhealthy hours just to keep their heads above water financially.

Whenever you focus on the challenges faced by today’s students, someone invariably pops up to point out that things were bad in the past too, which is undeniable. Of course paid employment has always been undertaken by some full-time students; it would be utterly naïve to pretend the current situation is wholly new.

But there is nonetheless still one big difference these days: the group of students doing paid work in term time now makes up the majority of full-time undergraduate students. Moreover, on average the amount of paid work done by these students is no longer ‘on the side’ but actually covers more time on average than their attended timetabled contact sessions (13.3 hours a week).

on average the amount of paid work done by these students is no longer ‘on the side’ but actually covers more time on average than their attended timetabled contact sessions

And these students are affected in all sorts of ways beyond the obvious. Our new survey results show, for example, that students with paid jobs during term time are more likely to resort to using AI to help with their studies and are more likely to be on courses with lots of online provision.

Why has the shift happened? There is likely more than one reason. There has been a (welcome) change to the student body, with more people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have less of a financial cushion to rest upon. High inflation has caused a cost-of-living crisis that has affected students (even) more than most others. A silly approach towards uprating maintenance support (such as increasing maintenance loans by wishful predictions of inflation, rather than actual inflation) has compounded the situation.

Do students work too little – or too hard?

It used to be regularly said that the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey proved most students were not working as hard as might be expected for people in full-time education. In 2012 (before I joined HEPI), the write-up of the survey concluded that higher education for full-time students was so unexacting that it typically ‘resembles part-time employment.’

Given the total number of hours each week that most students are now having to give up to academic work and paid employment combined, it would be impossible to come to that same overall conclusion today. The bifurcation we are witnessing is yet more evidence of the scale of the challenges facing higher education as election day draws nearer.

This year’s Student Academic Experience Survey was written by lead author Jonathan Neves of Advance HE along with Josh Freeman and Rose Stephenson from HEPI and Dr Peny Sotiropoulou of Advance HE.


  1. Tania says:

    Interesting article, but some of the change might be more positive. A lot of students do on line tutoring which enables them to work flexibly, this was not a real option pre Covid, but is a nice way of earning extra money.

    Agree that most students work because they can’t afford to live on loans and whatever parents are able to afford.

  2. Paul Wiltshire says:

    I agree that it is extraordinary that this survey is the ‘only’ record of contact hours, particularly whether those contact hours are online or in-person. The reason is that Universities specifically choose to not disclose this information in their course prospectuses even though CMA guidelines require them to publish it. So the information is deliberately hidden by the Universities in order to avoid scrutiny or being the subject of a complaint should contact hours not meet the published standard. The Office of Students is supposed to ensure compliance with CMA guidelines, but it continues to do absolutely nothing to ensure transparency of data. Hence we all have to scrabble around with surveys and the like to attempt quantify exactly what is going on in Universities with regards to contact hours.

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