August 10th 2015
Today's news brings the announcement that an Endsleigh/NUS survey has found that the number of university students working to help fund their studies has risen sharply. About 77% of students now work, up from 59% last year, and 14% of those work full-time during term time. 56% say they work in order to fund their time at university - not just tuition fees, but living expenses as well.
I presume this report is focusing on the 'traditional' constituency of full-time, residential, 18 to 21 year old undergraduate students and not the part-time, adult and often more mature learners whom the flexible learning agenda usually caters for. It is interesting for just that reason. That 'non traditional' group is frequently overlooked. This survey (or the reports of it) didn't see fit to even make that precision clear.
It is equally interesting that even now the 'traditional' student population still doesn't seem to be clamouring for greater flexibility of provision to enable them to combine work and study with relative ease. I wonder why. Is it really that easy to fit work and study around each other? Is this because employers are willing to be flexible? My experience is generally that higher education providers are not willing, or see themselves as unable to provide tuition in a flexible way, which offers learners choices in how, what, when and/or where they learn. That suggests that employers do this much better. Shift work in many parts of the service industry is likely to be the principal source of employment. Yet the report states that 'a large majority (87%) said developing additional skills and enhancing their CV were also important reasons for working whilst studying'. Is bar tending, waitressing or working at McDonalds likely to do that? Or are they finding jobs that have greater potential to fulfil that ambition? If so, what does the flexible working that employers must put into place look like, and what adjustments are they making that HEPs could usefully learn from?
Anecdotally, it seems that the idea of flexible learning isn't yet appealing to 'traditional' students. A number have told me that they prioritise their time at university above all else, not least because they regard it as a rite of passage between school and employment, the final transition between childhood and adulthood, and a protected time and space where they can do that growing and preparing. It is not something they are willing to relinquish; they regard it as a right.
That may well be true. Yet if increasing numbers are working full-time (however that is interpreted) to fund their time at university, then it may well be that at least some are finding jobs with flexible employers where what they are doing in the workplace will have a relevance to their future careers.
The next piece of research needs to investigate what sorts of jobs traditional university students are doing, what proportion of these are likely to be relevant to their future careers, and how employers are adjusting working patterns to accommodate this.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.