More than half of full-time students in the UK are now working long hours in paid jobs to support themselves at university, spending nearly two days a week in employment during term time due to the ongoing cost of living crisis.

A survey conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) of 10,000 full-time UK undergraduates revealed that a record 56 percent had paid employment while studying, averaging 14.5 hours of work each week.

This trend has raised concerns among experts who argue that the lack of adequate maintenance support is creating a widening divide between students who need to work long hours to survive and those who can focus solely on their studies.

Students with part-time jobs are now averaging 48-hour working weeks during term time, when combining their employment with attending lectures, classes, and other study commitments.

Some students even report working 56-hour weeks, significantly exceeding the average 36.6 hours worked by adults in full-time jobs, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The number of hours worked are increasing

Rose Stephenson, Hepi’s director of policy, highlighted that the traditional model of full-time residential study is becoming increasingly unattainable without better maintenance support. “As students battle the cost of living, the trend around part-time work becomes more concerning. Most students work, and the number of hours they work is increasing. If this trend continues, full-time study may become unfeasible for many,” Stephenson said.

The cost of living crisis has drastically altered the landscape of student employment. Before 2021, approximately two-thirds of students did not engage in paid work during term time. However, this year, 56 percent of students reported having paid employment and working longer hours than in previous years. Of those working, three-quarters stated they did so to cover living costs, and 23 percent also provided financial support to friends or family.

“For a lot of students, paid employment isn’t a choice; it’s something they have to do,” Stephenson added.

Students in intensive courses like veterinary studies and dentistry are particularly affected, averaging 56 hours a week between studies and paid work. Moreover, 80 percent of students who had been in care were found to be working part-time jobs.

Students are in a “danger zone”

Nick Hillman, the director of Hepi, warned that many working students are now in the “danger zone” identified by earlier research, facing higher dropout rates and reduced chances of earning first-class degrees. He noted a “bifurcated” system developing between those who can afford the traditional university experience, including extracurricular activities, and those for whom paid work “has to come first.”

The National Union of Students (NUS) echoed these concerns in a recent report, stating that the proportion of students using food banks had doubled due to the cost of living crisis. In the 2023-24 academic year, 14 percent of students reported using a food bank, compared with 7 percent in 2021-22.

Chloe Field, the NUS’s vice-president for higher education, remarked, “Not only are students cutting back on food, they are working almost full-time on top of already full-time studies, leaving them exhausted and unable to commit proper time and energy to our studies.”

Field called for straightforward solutions: reintroduce maintenance grants that meet the true cost of living, increase maintenance loans, and make students eligible for universal credit.

Despite their additional workload, 39 percent of students still felt their course was good value for money, with satisfaction levels rebounding from the lows experienced during the Covid pandemic. Only 26 percent of students viewed their course as poor value for money, the lowest proportion in a decade, driven by higher satisfaction among international students.

Hillman criticised the Conservative party’s manifesto promise to close “low-value” university courses and divert students into apprenticeships, labelling it “nuts, for so many reasons.” He emphasised that students are now dedicating more time to their studies than when the survey first began in 2016, dispelling the myth that students are “snowflakes.”

As the financial pressures on students continue to mount, the call for increased maintenance support becomes ever more urgent to ensure equitable access to higher education.

 

 

 

 

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Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.