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More Students Working Could Impact on the Student Experience

A little publicised but extremely relevant report has managed to slide through most of the UK’s media, yet it’s findings could have a massive impact on the future of English higher education policy.

The report in question is: The Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) Futuretrack Stage 3 report. This is a study following the 2006 cohort of 130,000 UCAS applicants from when they sent off their application until they enter their first job. The report is a fascinating source of information concerning the behaviour, expectations, aspirations, obstacles and feelings of a whole generation of students, and yet it has barely been mentioned in the media or in government press releases.

In light of recent events, namely the tripling of university tuition fees, the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and the massive cuts to university funding, this report should have been drawn upon, even if only to be used by the press to tear holes in the governments proposals. But news of Futuretrack has been scant on the ground.

The report is important for four reasons:

  • It tells us that on average more students are likely to be in employment in their last year of university than in their first;
  • That the number of hours they were doing paid work – on average – has increased;
  • It outlines students reasons for undertaking more work;
  • And it reinforces the idea that undertaking paid employment can have a on a students social life, economic situation and their expected results.

The fact that more students on average are forced in to paid employment by their third and final year of uni is ambiguous. Obviously when students first arrive at university they have a large student loan, a varying concept of the value of money and no links to local employers. As they go through university more will naturally pick up jobs. But the fact that third year is the most important should mean that more students should be leaving employment to concentrate on their finals. Futuretrack shows this is not the case, with both male and female students showing a tendency to be working almost four hours more a week in their final year. The main reasons given for this were to pay for increasing living and leisure costs or to get the necessary work experience for a foot in the door to a relevant employment sector.

This on it’s own is sad – it shows that the value of an academic education has been replaced by the business model of relevant experience driving the employment sector. Obviously students are heeding the message and fear that they may be left behind because others who do have the necessary work experience will have an advantage. However this is contradicted by institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, and other Russell Group universities who tell their students not to work. Students leaving these esteemed institutions are less likely to have trouble finding work than those who did get relevant work experience whilst at university, despite the fact that they may have little no work experience. It seems the business and university models of how best to get that first job are at odds.

The most interesting part of the study was the idea that students working can have an educational and socio-economic impact on their future. Although the report admits it is too early to investigate actual positive and negative effects, it does state that: “Students working long hours were more likely to be dissatisfied with various aspects of their courses, to predict lower grades for themselves than those who worked less and to participate in less other extra-curricular activities.”

Taking this altogether, it seems that students from the elite universities, which have more ways of raising money and supporting their students so they need not work, and can therefore get better grades. One would think that those who had worked would naturally have gained the experience to match the higher grades of these institutions, but no. It seems that getting relevant work experience only makes a difference if you are competing for a job with someone not from a Russell Group university. Sadly this has always been the case, so why do I grumble now?

I grumble now because with university fees set to triple a much wider gap is going to open between those institutions that can afford to support their students and those who can’t. It is my humble opinion, along with Higher Education Policy Institutes (HEPI) that very soon all the universities will be charging £9,000. The scheme has been set up as a market, and as such many universities will aim to match the highest fees to keep up with their competitors. There has been a lot of research on the governments claims of how a market driven higher education sector will improve participation, be more progressive and save the tax-payer money. Most notably by the HEPI, who said the plans had some “hugely optimistic assumptions”; and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) who reported that the plans could be “too complicated.” As Professor Roger Black, co-director of the Centre of Higher Education Research Development (CHERD) pointed out on Tuesday, proponents of the plans are falling back on the claim that increasing fees will improve quality by making universities improve standards or lose business. As he goes on to say, when picking their institutions, “it is prestige that is usually chosen, which has little or nothing to do with quality. In short, far from being an indicator of quality, price is a substitute for it.”

In this case, those students who fall into a similar demographic to those who now work because of fear of debt will be in even less of a bargaining position when looking for their first job. Under the new system I can see a lower tier where the final year students all have jobs, due to the massive rise in living expenses and fear of debt, whilst top institutions can help struggling students and very few of them take on gainful employment.

The last thing I want to touch is how these finding impact on the student experience. A few lines here and there in the media have mentioned how tripling fees will only fill the void left by cuts in public sector funding. What hasn’t received much press is how raising tuition fees will change the university experience. With fees tripling, but no improvement in education standards, it seems a bit rich to ask students to pay through the nose for the same system their predecessors paid only a fraction of the costs for, and our present politicians paid absolutely nothing for. If fees hikes are here to stay – and it looks like they are – then something has to be done by the government to improve the quality of education, which sadly wont be done because they would have to use some the funding they are desperate to save. When I approached AMOSSHE – the body responsible for the student experience – for a comment back in November, they politely refused. This implies to me that although students will be paying more, the standards will remain the same.

It is a scary time for students, and with private companies beginning to charge over £300 per week for student accommodation in London (I know Unite charges £100+ a week in Bristol, well above the usual cost of a private flat) the increase in the cost of living is going to hit students hard.

All this would be very sad, and really would take the value out of the educational experience itself, putting the value instead on the establishment in question. I feel this violates the raison d’etre of the UK’s higher education system, and would be a tragedy if it indeed came to this. If it matters more which institution you got your degree from, than the grade, or whether you have relevant work experience, then it will be a very sad day for the academic future of our country. As Brown says in the article mentioned above: “the new regime poses a real threat to quality assurance. We now face an increase in both state and market regulation, which will almost certainly increase compliance costs without any corresponding gains in quality.”

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