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One casualty is one too many

“One casualty is one too many”

A submission to the Treasury Committee Student Loans Inquiry that addresses specifically the terms of reference relating to; “the impact of student finances on students”.

The inquiry states that, “It will focus on the impact of student loans on the public finances, the success or failure of fee funding to act as a 'market' for higher education, and the impact of student finances on students”.

By Professor Mike Larkin. 23rd October 2017.

Emeritus Professor of Microbial Biochemistry, Queen’s University Belfast. Retired early and living in Edinburgh.  Thirty six years of experience in teaching and supporting students at all levels in Higher Education. 

Research experience in environmental science and biotechnology, microbiology and biochemistry. Former lead academic of the award winning QUESTOR Centre ( 

Former UCU president at Queen’s University Belfast, Chair of UCU Northern Ireland and member of UCU national executive.


·         A personal perspective:

·         The extent of part-time employment amongst students:

·         Student part-time jobs and attainment – the evidence:

·         Basis for a solution:

A personal perspective:

This submission is made to highlight specifically the plight of many students that are burdened with financial worries and low paid part-time jobs whilst studying at University. My perspective comes from extensive experience in supporting students whilst at Queen’s University Belfast. The university has a proud record of helping students from low income backgrounds and has one of the highest intakes of students from such backgrounds in the UK. It stands out amongst the Russell group of Universities in this respect. Despite being a successful research academic, I also insisted on retaining a substantial teaching role and have taught students at all levels without a break for 36 years. The last course I coordinated and ran had 322 students enrolled and covered general Microbiology and practical laboratory training; a considerable commitment.

As fees were introduced it became clear to me that many students were compromising their attainment at University through diverting much of their time to part-time jobs. This situation has steadily become worse. I decided to retire early at the end of 2016 to devote my time and my own resources to seeking ways to protect such students as they embarked upon their careers.

I am currently carrying out a detailed review of the formal evidence that examines what effect, if any, part-time jobs have on the marks and degree grades that students achieve. I have many personal examples of the shocking effects of working hours on students that I have supported.  Whilst many have a family safety-net to fall back into, others are taking a risk on a “high wire with no safety net at all”. If they fall it can be catastrophic for them and their careers.  All too often a first class degree becomes a 2.1 or 2.2 degree. These many examples fuel my belief that “one casualty is one too many”.

This submission summarises a single issue that the committee should therefore consider. It defines the main effect of fees and low maintenance grants/loans has on students and their families that have little to start with.

It goes to the heart of social mobility, namely the ability of students to afford to take a risk and to ultimately succeed in higher education.

The extent of part-time employment amongst students:

A survey by the Royal bank of Scotland in 2006 reported that almost half of the UK's students worked part-time during the term and earned a staggering £2.3bn a year. Those that did, worked an average of 16 hours a week, with 20% doing more than 20 hours per week. Subsequent surveys by Endsleigh with the National Union of Students reached similar conclusions. By 2015, 77% of the 4,642 surveyed had jobs; 63% worked part-time and, amazingly, 14% worked full time. By comparison 59% had term-time jobs in 2014 and 57% in 2013. Furthermore, the families that could afford it were contributing increasing funds to help out. These figures appeared to be driven by the decision to further increase fees in 2012 after the 2010 Browne review. The link between increased financial burdens and part-time work seems clear enough. However, such surveys often present overall averages that hide the extent of pressures on the poorest students.  There are many individuals that show extraordinary determination in the face of the challenge, but suffer a consequent loss of attainment.

Student part-time jobs and attainment – the evidence:

This appears to be the biggest “elephant in the room” for many institutions. Many universities do not gather formal data that might link the burden of part-time jobs to student attainment. One reason for this might be to hide the evidence that the number of formal contact hours with students has declined. This enables scope for more part-time working and thus lets poorer students complete their studies. Academic attainment is ascribed to the individual and their ability and not to other factors. Nevertheless, many universities do survey students regarding the extent of part-time jobs but have somewhat patchy data.  The problem remains largely a hidden one and I have observed that many academic staff are not fully aware of the extent of the burden amongst the students they teach.

There are only a limited number studies that have sought to define the link between the time spent in part-time employment and attainment. In 2001 it was concluded that, “There is found to be a financially vulnerable group of students whose fragile financial position largely results from their parents being unable to offer much financial support; this group in particular finds their time at university characterised by considerable amounts of paid work and increasing debt(Christie, Munro, and Rettig 2001). By 2008, Callender et al (Callender 2008) reported on a study of 1000 students in six UK universities. This may still be the most rigorous study to date and it opened up some alarming observations of the situation then. It showed clearly that part-time work during term had a detrimental effect on both final year marks and degree results. Indeed, going further it reported a greater negative effect the greater the number of hours students worked. Consequently, it was concluded that, “students working the average number of hours a week were a third less likely to get a good degree than an identical non-working student. Some of the least qualified and poorest students are most adversely affected perpetuating existing inequalities in higher education”. This study reinforced an earlier report from one post-92 university (Hunt, Lincoln, and Walker 2004) that observed that those in employment in the term were disproportionately from less well-off backgrounds. It concluded that we might become “concerned about the efficiency (loss of attainment) as well as the equity/fairness consequences of the arrangements”.

By 2012, a web based study in one university showed that the majority of students worked in the term. Indeed, some students were spending longer in such employment than in time-tabled classes but saw positive aspects of work experience. It was concluded that there was a “need for institutions to consider offering more support mechanisms for individual students(Robotham 2012).  This is further evidenced by McGregor (2015) whose studies concluded that almost two thirds of students worked in term-time with an average of 16 hours per week calculated. Whilst most felt this affected their studies, over half also declared that their physical health was affected. Fewer noted mental health problems but it was also a concerning issue. One solution from the students was that lectures should be recorded and made openly available.

The extent of part-time jobs amongst students is not confined to the UK. There are numerous other examples world-wide. For example, similar conclusions have been reported in Italy (Triventi 2014) and the USA (Logan et al. 2016).  A study in 2011 showed that the influence of parental education and success is felt across eleven EU countries including the UK (Triventi 2011). A general conclusion is that some term-time working may be beneficial to studies, particularly if it is related to the degree subject and objectives (Geel and Backes-Gellner 2012).  However, although suggested in some cases, there is no good evidence that there is a generally applicable or ideal threshold number of hours beyond which working is detrimental to studies. Nevertheless the study of Logan et al. (Logan, Hughes, and Logan 2016) concluded that exceeding 20 hours a week was to be discouraged.

Basis for a solution:

The first thing to clarify is what the social and political objectives are with regard to students in Higher Education. Secondly, to define a basis for fairness and equality of opportunity.  If, for example, a university was to offer their students an extra hour in an examination if they could pay a fee for it, everyone would be outraged.  However, it seems that assessing a substantial course assignment or project that counts greatly towards the degree outcome is not constrained by such a notion of fairness. A student with the time available may spend, for example, 20 or so hours on their assignment whereas a student with part-time work perhaps exceeding 20 hours per week may have to forgo sleep to compete effectively. This is not equal or fair by any measure.

The emphasis should change from how much part-time work is being done to how much time and resources each and every student has available to complete their studies. The universities should not need compromise the contact time and support available to accommodate the part-time jobs of students or to allow significant numbers of staff to concentrate on research whilst low paid assistants bear the teaching burden. Both are a recipe for a fudge that could lead to collapse of the whole system.

Before designing any funding system it must start with consideration of the individual student and work from that point.  This would require starting again from the beginning and resetting the system.

I propose three principles in seeking a fair and equal education of high quality.

1.    Every university will provide defined, rigorous and testing degree programmes that offers access to the full expertise of the most experienced staff.

2.    Every student will have the same time and resources available to carry out their studies regardless of background.

3.    There will be Total Equality for students regardless of circumstances, race or gender. Even one student failing or attaining a lower class degree because of time and resource problems will be:

“One casualty too many”.


Callender, Claire. 2008. “The Impact of Term-Time Employment on Higher Education Students’ Academic Attainment and Achievement.” Journal of Education Policy 23(4):359–77.

Christie, H., M. Munro, and H. Rettig. 2001. “Making Ends Meet: Student Incomes and Debt.” Studies in Higher Education 26(3):363–83.

Geel, Regula and Uschi Backes-Gellner. 2012. “Earning While Learning: When and How Student Employment Is Beneficial.” Labour 26(3):313–40.

Hunt, Andrew, Ian Lincoln, and Arthur Walker. 2004. “Term-Time Employment and Academic Attainment: Evidence from a Large-Scale Survey of Undergraduates at Northumbria University.” Journal of Further and Higher Education 28(1):3–18.

Logan, Jennifer, Traci Hughes, and Brian Logan. 2016. “Overworked? An Observation of the Relationship Between Student Employment and Academic Performance.” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice 18(3):250–62.

McGregor, Iain. 2015. “How Does Term-Time Paid Work Affect Higher Education Students’ Studies, and What Can Be Done to Minimise Any Negative Effects?” Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice 3(2):3–14.

Robotham, David. 2012. “Student Part-Time Employment: Characteristics and Consequences.” Education + Training 54(1):65–75.

Triventi, M. 2011. “Stratification in Higher Education and Its Relationship with Social Inequality: A Comparative Study of 11 European Countries.” European Sociological Review 29(3):489–502.

Triventi, Moris. 2014. “Does Working during Higher Education Affect Students’ Academic Progression?” Economics of Education Review. 57(6): 681-702.



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