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Student Living Index 2019: Hiding a two-tier ‘student experience’ in the UK

The release today of the annual Natwest student living index for 2019 added further evidence to the idea that there is a two-tier ‘student experience’ in UK universities. Whilst 62% of students surveyed had no employment in the term time, the rest are not so fortunate. As for many such surveys conducted in the UK, the liberal use of averages without presenting the distributions obscures the dilemma faced by the minority of students under financial pressure. Recent surveys of students in Australia were more open in revealing a similar working dilemma for their students and we would do well to learn from their example of greater openness.

TEFS presented a view of student finance in Australia last Friday to illustrate the dilemma that the majority of students there have in balancing part-time work and time to study (see TEFS 12th July 2019 ‘Do you come from the land down under? Australian students under pressure’. The two surveys of students in Australia reveal a shocking financial pressure put on students there. The impact on learning and progress was clearly evident. For students that have to resort to part-time working in the UK, there would seem to be similar pressures. However, the majority of students in the UK do not have part-time jobs (around 64%) as reported by TEFS last year (See TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority - one million - of students have no employment when in full-time studies.’). This leaves around 36% students seeking jobs to make ends meet since maintenance loans and grants in the UK are still insufficient. In Australia the figure is 84% working part-time. However, most of them (69%) work below 20 hours per week. The remaining 31% work much longer hours; 12% over 30 hours per week. The result is a similar figure to the UK for students working unreasonable hours that are likely t
o have a negative impact on their success.

Hiding a two-tier system in the UK.

The Natwest student living index for 2019 was released this morning. The Guardian Universities reported the findings as ‘Students struggle to support themselves as university rent costs rise’. Indeed, this is the case and the Guardia
n article backs this up by citing the shocking findings of a NUS survey ‘Homes Fit for Study 2019’ that was published in February of this year. This was the third in a series of surveys that highlights the exploitation and shocking conditions that some students endure.

However, there is more hidden underneath the Student Living Index report. It reveals further evidence that a two-tier system operates in our universities. Those with family support have more time to study. Those without such help resort to excessive part-time working. The report was released ahead of the scheduled time set for earlier years (August in 2018) but yet again reveals a pattern that is all too familiar. In a limited survey of 3,604 students, the 45-page report confirms the TEFS conclusion in that 62% of students surveyed do not have a term-time paid job. However, as for the recent AdvanceHE/HEPI survey (reported by TEFS 5th July 2019 ‘Advance HE annual meeting: Excellence without Inclusivity?’) the extent of the time deficit problem for many students is obscured. The mean hours worked in paid jobs by students per month is reported as 14.2 hours. This would seem to be not so onerous. However, it is a meaningless average without an indication of the distribution. The N value is reported as the total of 3,604 in the survey. Adjusting for the proportion of those that report that they do not work, the mean hours worked by the 38% that have to work is a much greater 37.4 hours per month. The distribution of hours worked would be likely to reveal a significant number of students at a clear disadvantage in relation to their peers that have more time to study. This is inherently a two-tier system that divides those with from those without.

Middle-class myopia.

A delegate, and member of university staff, at the recent Advance HE annual conference on teaching and learning told me that students should “work this out” before deciding to go to university. They were referring to some having to work part-time whilst at university. The clear implication was that those that have to work too much should not consider university.

The comment is a good example of the profound social blindness that afflicts many university staff and students. Former minister, David Willets, in his book from 2017 ‘A University Education’, exemplified this patronising detachment from reality even better in his opening remarks, “I love Universities. You just have to look at the posters stuck to the walls and notice boards. They add up to a picture of the good life – invitations to join sports teams, orchestras, social projects , new drama productions…………”. The good life indeed! I have encountered this attitude many times and see it instead as a middle-class myopia.

In answer to the first comment, of course they work it out in advance! Some decide they can only attend a university near home where they have access to an ongoing job. Some decide that cannot afford to go but still take a risk. They are balancing degree outcome with time working from the outset. They are at the bottom tier of the student experience. They must endure very poor living conditions or commute a long way from home. I know this because I have helped many students struggling with the dilemma of work, caring and travel versus time for studying. It is not represented by a meaningless average, there is no such thing as an average student. For some it is not the “good life”, it is the most difficult time of their lives.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics

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