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The vast majority - one million - of students have no employment when in full-time studies.

Education takes time
This posting  is intended to lay down a challenge to all post-16 education providers.  It is especially important for Universities and Colleges to understand the constraints on their students. Most do not consider what their students are actually doing with their time week on week. They prefer to concentrate on what they produce and assess that as progress and attainment. 

They do not generally consider how the assignments or studies are done or what might be the constraints and time frames for their students. It is time for this to change and each institution must be asked to gather more information from all of their students on how much time they have to study. Many students have plenty of spare time on their hands, whilst others are in employment to fund their studies. The current situation amounts to a massive and deteriorating deficit in equality of opportunity that affects thousands of students.
The deficit in equality and study time.
The AdvanceHE and Higher Education Policy Unit (HEPI) student survey provides a valuable insight into what students are doing; or at least what they report they are doing. The data behind the 2018 report [1] is based upon an annual survey of students in Higher Education. It shows that, in the last five years, 16% report that they are working up to 9 hours per week and 20% over 10 hours per week. This is a substantial number of students diverting time from their studies. However, 64% report that they have no paid employment. This broadly aligns with the ONS quarterly employment data [2] summarised below. 

There is, however, another way to get some better insight into the lives of students by accessing historical data relating to employment of young people from age 16 to age 24. This generally covers the period in school and time spent in colleges and undergraduate degrees in university. The data is part of the very large datasets from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that covers the employment and the labour market in the UK [2]. Shown here are the results for all 18-24 year olds in full-time education since 1992 to May of this year (Figure 1). For comparison the data for those not in education are shown above. Similarly, Figure 2 shows data for 16-17 year olds in full-time education. Many of these are studying for A-Levels, Highers and on other access courses. The data is gathered and produced as overlapping quarterly releases and is not shown as ‘seasonally adjusted’ here. Simply put, it is easy to see that numbers show a cyclical pattern that coincides with the summer months. Many not in employment during the academic year find some employment in the summer and the number dips. However, those in employment throughout the year seem to retain employment throughout the summer months and the cyclical pattern is very much less pronounced.

In the current cycle of data from April to May this year, a staggering 32% were in employment whilst also in full time education. Worryingly a significant proportion were seeking work as unemployed and are probably in desperate circumstances.

An increasingly large number of students have time to spare at college and University.

Instead of considering how many students work whilst in full time education it is interesting to look at it from the perspective of those that do not need to find employment. It is likely that most of these students have family funds to back them and give them the best chance to study. In this respect, the AdvanceHE/ HEPI survey shows that 64% of students in Higher Education have no paid employment whilst at university [1]. It follows that they surely have a considerable amount of spare time. However, different degree courses seem to have very different time demands [1]. Those studying Medicine report working an average of 46 hours on their course with 19 hours contact with staff per week. In contrast those studying History and Philosophy degrees report a total of 27 hours and only 8 hours contact time with staff. It might be that the expectation of a Medical degree deters those that have to find funds through employment during their studies. Similarly, the barring of term-time employment at Oxford and Cambridge must set a considerable challenge for those without family financial assistance. The outcome is obvious when very few from low income families attend these universities. For the majority of students, it seems that there is time to study and enjoy a social life. They have time to make contacts with like minded colleagues.

The ONS data confirms that, in the last few years, almost one million students have no term time employment or employment in the summer. This is a staggering number of students roaming our cities that must be receiving financial assistance from some source or other. It is most likely to be family support. Those that use their spare time wisely are likely to succeed. Unlike the minority of their colleagues, that have no time to widen their experience and knowledge. However, with so much spare time available it might be expected that some get blown well off course. 

Those seeking a place in Higher and Further Education have to find time to work hard. 

For full-time students aged 16 to 17 there is a similar pattern of employment (Figure 2). The gap between those not in employment and those working or seeking work is widening further. However, it is interesting to see how the numbers of those not employed has increased steadily in recent years. More are in education and more are devoting all of their

time to that end. Schools have very structured programmes and students are expected to work hard. The goal for many is to access Higher Education and this requires considerable effort by teachers and students together. However, the disciplined approach in School does not prepare young people for release into an environment where they have considerable time to spare. Conversely there are still a significant number of 16 to 17 year old students in employment or seeking work. Those that proceed to Higher Education with this burden and go on to succeed are to be congratulated for their hard work and resilience. Unfortunately, all of the indicators are pointing to fewer students from lower income backgrounds attending the elite universities and then attaining lower degree classes [5].

Social mobility and widening participation.

The shock is that a clear gap is opening up between those in full time education and not in employment and those that have to find a job (Figure 1). The introduction of loans to cover fees, and the increase in fees linked to lifting the cap on student numbers in England, appears to have had little effect on overall student numbers at the various time points. The numbers of students continued to rise. However, was this favouring those from lower income backgrounds? It seems unlikely on the trends shown in Figure 1. The increase in overall numbers of students appears to be mostly due to those that do not need employment during the academic year and many have no employment on the summer months. Those that are recorded as seeking employment throughout the year may represent students in very difficult circumstances

It would be reasonable to assume that many of the full-time students that seek employment do so because of a shortfall in their funds. These are most likely to be students from families that cannot, or are unwilling to, support their children through their education. If they are away from home, the accommodation costs can range from around £5,000 for 36 weeks to £7,000 for the whole year [3]. In England, the move from maintenance grants to maintenance loans set a major challenge for such students. Between 2012 and 2016, those living outside London could access £6,236 pa in maintenance loans. This meant that there was a shortfall of several thousand pounds per year that had to be made up somehow. Thankfully, from 2016 the maintenance loan increased to £8,430 pa and will increase to £8,700 pa from 2018/2019 . This better addresses the financial conflict that had emerged for many from poorer families. However, there will still be a shortfall and time will tell if this lowers the levels of employment seen now.

The equality challenge.

There is a widening gap between those with family support at our colleges and universities and those that have to find employment to live. This means that it would be hard for any institution to be able to claim that every student has the same opportunity and time to study. Indeed it would be disingenuous to claim this at all. That students from lower income backgrounds tend to drop out more often and achieve lesser degrees seems inevitable given the current situation [5]. Similarly it would be wrong to suggest that in recent times there has been a genuine increase in social mobility driven by access to college and university education. There are far too many other factors in play and the increase in university student numbers has clearly favoured those with family support. Any genuine social mobility is gained the hard way.

Instead, the extent of the increasing divergence in equality of opportunity must be addressed. Every institution should gather information from their students about the time that they have available to study. This could be done through each student producing a personal study plan that includes all of their time spent studying or in employment. A tutor should assess and guide each student through the process. National standards should also be set to increase the time spent studying full time to a minimum level. After all, the OECD defines employment of 30 hours or less per week as part-time work. This might be a reasonable baseline. A minimum standard for accommodation and access to books and IT should be in place. Any student finding that they cannot meet the standards set should be supported. This means guaranteeing good accommodation, an increase in availability of bursaries and reinstating maintenance grants. All of this will have to happen if every student is to get an equal chance to succeed.

Mike Larkin, is an Emeritus Professor of Microbial Biochemistry. He retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. 

[1] HEPI Student Experience Survey 2018.

[2] Office for National Statistics
Note: Not in full-time education includes people in part-time education and/or some form of training. Estimates of the number of young people who are not in employment, education or training.
People in full-time education are employed if they have a part-time job or unemployed if they are looking for part-time employment. The denominator = all persons in the relevant age group for economically active, total in employment and economically inactive; economically active for unemployment.

[3] National Student Accommodation Survey 2018 – Results

[4] UCAS Living costs for full-time students 2018

[5] IFS 2014 Socio-economic differences in university outcomes in the UK: drop-out, degree completion and degree class.


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