Unfortunately, none of the manifestos acknowledge the simple principle that each student should be afforded the same opportunity to study. To do this, it would be necessary to make sure that all students have someplace acceptable to stay and have the same time available to complete their studies. However, nothing could be further from the truth. TEFS has highlighted that many students divert their time into commuting and part-time employment. TEFS analyses of data from the AdvanceHE / Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Student Academic Experience Survey reports from 2012 to 2019 revealed that the pattern of term-time employment of students had not greatly altered since 2012 (see TEFS 19th July 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Overall pattern across the UK’. The majority of students surveyed were not employed in term time and this fitted a general observation of employment data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) quarterly employment data (see TEFS 27th July 2018 ‘The vast majority - one million - of students have no employment when in full-time studies’). A follow-up TEFS analysis of the same survey data revealed that students having to seek employment in term time are not necessarily confined to those from so-called ‘disadvantaged areas’ or from state schools. Those from more advantaged areas and backgrounds can also find themselves under financial pressure and working during term time (see TEFS 9th August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Challenging the ‘disadvantage’ shibboleth’). Perversely, many of those commuting longer distances to their place of study also carry a greater burden of time in part-time employment (see TEFS 23rd August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’
What would it cost to equalise student study time?
This gives an overview of the total hours worked per year across the whole student population in 2017/18. Although the same survey shows that on average 66% of students do not have term-time employment, this still represents a considerable commitment from those that do. Using the current £9.30 per hour real living wage as a guide, the total cost of the excess employment hours that are financing those students comes to a staggering £1.18 billion per year. It might be fair to deduce that families of students who did not work in term-time were subsidising their children to the tune of a total of around £2.3 billion per year over that time. The effect of student part-time employment on the local economy is considerable. Indeed, local businesses might rely on their input as an integral part of their business. However, it should be limited to protect the chances of those who are working excess hours.
Alleviating the excess working hours would be expensive and would probably require an extra input of around £1.3 billion per year into the funding system on top of existing hardship funds. This would be difficult to target since not all students under financial stress come from low-income families. There may be siblings using family resources or other pressures or commitments not always apparent. It would require universities to manage such additional financial support on the basis of assessments of need across a range of scenarios.
Can the country afford an expansion in government spending by the main contenders?
It seems that the aspirations, however grandiose or modest, have come in for severe criticism. Leading this has been a devastating analysis by the influential Institute for Fiscal Studies released yesterday (IFS General election 2019 manifesto analysis). Its considered view has three broad conclusions. The Conservative Party might have more modest spending plans, however, these will be constrained by a promise not to increase taxes. This is considered to be a signal that borrowing will rise considerably. The Labour party has very ambitious spending plans that are to be funded by taxation of the better off. However, there will be fallout on prices across the whole population. Again, borrowing will be the only way to plug the gaps. The Liberal Democrats are considered to be more prudent. However, their plans depend upon a bonus of income arising from not leaving the EU.
One of the main defences of the large Labour spending plans is that government spending in the UK is well below that of the larger EU countries. Indeed, this appears to be the case. Figures 2 and 3 are combined and show firstly that spend per GDP (latest OECD data from 2014 to 2017) is well below that of many other countries.
Despite this, the UK should be in a position to expand its spending from its low position currently. The questions must, therefore, be those of priorities. When considering equality of opportunity in Higher Education, it is important that every student gets an equal chance to study. That should be the underlying premise of any support offered and a priority at all levels of education if social mobility is to improve. It will be expensive to do, but the alternative is a grossly unfair system. The wider expansion of part-time degrees for those working part-time might be a way forward but only for those who wish this. Either way, the days of inflicting the pressure of full-time study on students who struggle to find the time should be relegated to the past.
TEFS thanks Jonathan Neves and colleagues at Advance HE and HEPI for openly releasing the combined data from 2012 to 2019. Also ‘Youthsight’ for the large student panels that provided a solid platform for the surveys.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.