All work and low pay: students at work

Students often find themselves in the most insecure and lowest paid jobs
Students often find themselves in the most insecure and lowest paid jobs

A recent joint report released by the NUS and the TUC shows that over the last ten years, the number of students having to get part-time jobs while studying has risen by 54%.

Submitted by Ed on November 24, 2006

Being a student isn’t what it used to be. I mean, sometimes in these days of loans and top-up fees it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always like this. After all, only ten years ago the fees didn’t exist at all. And before that we actually used to get given grants to go to uni! Times have changed now and with it, the student experience.

Obviously, we’ll always have the excessive drinking and wide-ranging immorality. That’s here to stay. But some things about being a student have changed drastically. A new report from the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) shows that more students than ever are having to take up part-time jobs in order to fund their way through university. In fact, since 1996, the amount of full-time students in paid employment has risen by 54%. Female students have been hit even harder. While the last ten years has seen the amount of male students having to work increase by 47%, the amount of working female students rose by 67.5%!

Of course, some people, such as Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister has claimed that students taking jobs is “nothing new” and is actually beneficial as many employers “want evidence that students have work experience”. The point that Bill seems to conveniently be missing is not the fact that students are getting jobs, but the scale on which it’s happening since his party first introduced higher education fees.

Another worrying trend is that working students tend to go into the most insecure and low paying jobs around. Two-thirds of all employed students end up in either the retail or the hospitality industry, which have the lowest rates of pay for part-time staff in the UK. Over the whole academic year, average wages for full-time students in continuous work is around £5.73 an hour.

Naturally, it’s not just the poor wages that us students have to complain about. Anyone who’s ever worked can tell you how the misery of having a job manages to worm its way into the rest of your life. Increased stress, fatigue, less time for studying, sleeping and socialising. It’s all there in the working life of a student. 40% of working full-time students said employment has a negative effect on their studies with more than half of part-time students echoing this sentiment.

Of those full-time students who felt their paid work had an impact on their studies, more than three-quarters stated that working meant they spent less time studying. Two-thirds reported that lack of time impacted on the quality of their studies and a similar proportion reported increased stress levels and feeling overloaded. 10% of students have thought about dropping out for financial reasons.

Here at Sussex university, some of us probably work more hours in one shift then we have contact hours in a week. Students with jobs work an average of 14 hours a week, many of us at Sussex have as little as seven or eight contact hours a week. Fees well spent?

It’s clear that university no longer means young people studying to prepare themselves for the workforce but actually involves them juggling the two simultaneously. The fact that we also find ourselves in those sections of the economy where low wages and high instability go hand in hand means that we have to do something about our situation. Workplaces aren’t just stressful environments but they can also be dangerous ones too with thousands of people being made ill or injured by their jobs. In some cases it can even lead to death, as happened to Sussex student Simon Jones in 1998 when he was killed on his first day working on Brighton docks. An estimated 20,000 people are killed by or at work each year .

So what can we do? We can’t rely on our bosses to look after us, after all, their job is to keep things business as usual. Even the nice ones still have to put profit before their staff. The only people we can rely on to look after us are our workmates, students or non-students, by knowing our rights and getting organised. At work, our strength is in the fact that when we stop working (or even just slow down), profit stops being made and from here, we can start to reach a deal for better conditions. Whether its for better wages, longer breaks or taxis home after a late night shift, we can achieve it through organisation. As much as the student experience may have changed, this has not.

To read the full report, click here
For tips about organising at work, check out the libcom workplace organising section