Would more student income support improve academic results?

In addition, I’m not convinced that if all university students in Australia received free education and enough income support to live comfortably that the majority would spend all that extra time studying.

– backroom girl this morning.

In her doubts, backroom girl goes against some higher education orthodoxy. 43% of Australian students in a survey released last year agreed with the proposition that ‘work commitments adversely affect my performance in university’. The Vice-Chancellors have called for more Youth Allowance to ‘ensure optimal educational outcomes’.

It certainly seems plausible that if students worked fewer hours they might optimise their educational outcomes. But like many plausible-sounding ideas in higher education, the evidence for it is mixed at best.

This 2002 study of working full-time students did not find a negative relationship between hours of work for the sample overall, but did find one for school-leavers. Unfortunately, they don’t say at what work level the negative effects started or how large the effects were.

A 2005 study (pdf) of University of Canberra students concluded that working up to 11 hours a week correlated with higher average marks, with negative effects starting after 22 hours of paid employment.

The literature survey bible of American higher education student research, How College Affects Students, failed to find any negative effects below 20 hours of work a week.

So the available research suggests that the current Australian average of 15 hours paid work a week for a full-time undergraduate probably doesn’t provide a basis for policy change, at least to improve academic results.

Why this counter-intuitive result? Few courses are, in reality, week-after-week generators of large amounts of work. There are bursts of intense activity as essays fall due and exams arrive, but not continuous long hours. If we did a time-use survey I doubt we would find students’ combined paid and academic workloads would exceed the normal workloads of many professionals. That’s why many recent graduates find their first full-time professional job so tiring to begin with. There are enough hours in the week to get it all done, with a little organisation.

The students doing less paid work in these surveys aren’t getting better results because they are probably filling much of the spare time with other non-academic activities or with inefficiency (given the propensity of tasks to expand to fill the time available). I agree with backroom girl on this. Even if students work less it does not mean that they will study more. Student leisure might be attractive from a lifestyle point of view, but it isn’t obvious that taxpayers should have to work to fund the idleness of others.

38 thoughts on “Would more student income support improve academic results?

  1. “Few courses are, in reality, week-after-week generators of large amounts of work”
    There’s a reason for degree inflation, and this a symptom of them. What it shows is that there’s also a circular component to the initial statement:
    “I’m not convinced … would spend all that extra time studying”
    because once courses are tailored so 95% of students can pass (most undergraduate courses these days) we aren’t talking about the average at all any more. How much work does the student sitting at the 95% level do? 30 hours per week? These guys have to pass also. This is of course in everyone’s short term interests, since easier (and fewer) courses are of course simpler and less time consuming to run.


  2. The revolution that is required for school education involves a partnership between parents, teachers and pupils to get serlous about the tasks (and the joys) of learning.

    Similarly at uni, if there is a serious student in the house the parents need to ask how much they can help financially to maximise the benefits of the uni experience. The biggest problem is that about half the students in humanities don’t know wny they are there, (I think that is Robert Manne’s figure and I dont think it is controversial) they are not seriously interested or motivated.

    And of coursed the full uni expereince is not just lectures, tutes and essays, there is the library and lifelong friendships to be made etc.


  3. Conrad – Admittedly I am talking about just two courses at one university 20 years ago, but we were given less work to do then than students are today, because we had less continuous assessment and more emphasis on exams. People not doing the reading in tutorials was the norm (though we did have proper tutorials, which a lot of people don’t now).

    Due to the expansion of higher education since there must be a longer tail of academically weak students, but this would mostly affect the newer universities.


  4. I’m not at all surprised to discover that 43% of students say that the amount of time they spend in paid work affects their academic performance – they would say that wouldn’t they? And of course they and the AVCC think the government should give them more money – who wouldn’t?

    As I said in a comment on the previous post, the problem (if there is one) does not seem to reside with the average student, but with those who need to work more than 20 hours a week just to survive. Most of these I would guess are students whose low-middle income parents earn too much to entitle them to YA, but not really enough to support them adequately at uni. Some presumably have parents who don’t want to support them, but I suspect that is a fairly small group.

    But it is not as if these young people have to study full-time and work 20+ hours per week. They can always study part-time for a few years or defer their studies entirely for a year or two until they have supported themselves for long enough to qualify for independent YA. (I know that some people regard this as something of a rort, but I believe that with the parental income test as it is (especially for families with more than one child aged 16-24 and/or those whose kids need to live away from home to study), it is the only viable option for many.)

    So, I think there may be a smallish group who would actually benefit from extra income support to enable them to pay more attention to their study, but this is where policy changes should be targeted, not across the board. This is easily done by reforming the parental means test – it does not require wholesale increases in YA rates.


  5. BG: You need to distinguish need vs. want. Being lucky enough to live off Austudy in the early 90s, I’m ambundantly aware of this predictament. How much money does one _need_ to live. Lets say you get $15 p.h., and work 20 hours. This gives you $300 per week. Thats not a lot of money, but does your 18 year old student need more than this (let alone one living with their parents)? Of course, if you want to talk incessantly on your mobile, party on the weekend etc., this isn’t enough. But then we are not talking need then. Of courses there are a very small number of students with kids etc. and these would be worth considering, but these cases are few and far between.


  6. Accepting that students are working longer hours, the question is: since when? As a secondary school student in the 1960s and early 1970s, the norm was for school leavers to go to work full time. Very few of us – perhaps 10% – went to university. The years of free university education still required me to work during vacation time, but not during semester. With mass higher education from the 1980s, it’s not surprising that more people who went to uni needed to work at the same time – the capacity for even well off parents to support more than one child going to uni was much reduced. I’d say the unusual period was the one young people were not working and studying.

    It’s also the case that most young people today work in the final years of secondary school – Krause et al (The First Year Experience in Australian Universities: Findings from a Decade of National Studies, 2005) report that amongst their sample of Australian university students, 72% of respondents working 16 hours or more undertook paid work in their final year of secondary school. So most domestic students going to university would regard it as normal to work and study.

    Why they work is open to speculation. Some because they have to – they need the cash. Not so good – makes sense to consider reviewing the means test for Austudy which is pretty mean as it stands. Some because they want to. They may want to establish some independence from their parents – an understandable and good thing – or feel uncomfortable about the financial drain on their parents if they did not earn money off their own bats – another understandable and good thing.

    The great value that working while studying brings is often overlooked. Young people grasp a whole series of important realities that otherwise remain theoretical or observed only – accountability, responsibility, time management, team work, organisational skills, communication skills. These offer platforms for universities to work with in designing delivery of generic skills and incorporating lived experience into learning opportunities. However, this lived experience is often discounted or devalued, despite the emphasis placed on it be a never-ending string of reports on employer views about the skills they want from both VET and HE graduates.

    The concern I have is how many hours students are working per week during semester. The Krause study suggested, as I recall, that working more than 16 hours per week adversely affected academic results. So lower than the Canberra Uni Andrew mentions – 22hrs when the effect sets in. It would help with retention/attrition, negotiation of expectations and student engagement if we understood more about the work-study link and could then fashion responses more thoughtfully.

    Would students study more if they worked less? Good question. The answer will no doubt be resoundingly mixed. And the reasons behind ‘yes, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ answers to the question would need a helluva lot of detailed work.

    While the assertion that 50% of humanities students don’t know why they are there – attributed by Rafe to Robert Manne – may be true, it stands as a convenient backhander rather than a clear finding. Even if the 50% were true, there are 50% who (presumably) do know whey they are there. We ought not lose sight of them.



  7. Conrad – I agree that what we might define as needs might not coincide with the definition that many students might adopt. I know that my older daughter certainly thought she was entitled to the same standard of living that she had had at home when she first moved out – but we were able to pay her the equivalent of what she would have got in YA, plus she had regular fairly well-paid part-time work as well.

    I think it is unlikely that students with children are the ones missing out on an adequate income, since they generally have access to pretty good income support, especially if they are single parents. $300 would be pretty tough I think for someone getting no support from parents – difficult too if you are not able to get a job with pretty regular and reliable hours.

    Rob – clearly part-time work as a secondary/tretiary student is now the norm and I don’t see that changing. The other difference between now and when we were students in the 60s and 70s is the availability of part-time jobs. I was lucky to get a regular-hours part-time job when I was at uni, but that was because I had worked full-time in a bank for a few years. My partner relied on intermittent functions work in the hospitality industry and I know that many students just had to take whatever odd jobs came along. And there were not all that many jobs that had the flexibility to fit in with academic schedules.

    For many young people that has all changed with the 24/7 economy – whether you like it or not, it is undeniable that the increased availability of evening and weekend work has been to the benefit of young people wanting (or needing) to work part-time.


  8. “$300 would be pretty tough I think for someone getting no support from parents – difficult too if you are not able to get a job with pretty regular and reliable hours”

    Its more than unemployment benefits. I might point out too that whilst you might have sympathy for people working 20+ hours per week so they don’t have to live on this amount (I know there are people that work full time in the courses I teach that expect all sorts of special consideration etc. because of it incidentally), given that courses generally get calibrated to the lowest level (so we have to worry about all these bothers), they are doing the other students a disservice by devaluing their degrees. This of course forces those students to spend more money later when they have to pay for postgraduate courses (often up front) because employers don’t care as much for their degrees anymore.


  9. Conrad, it is a bad scene where you have to cater for people who just want a certificate without actually being entitled to it! I wonder how many other areas of endeavour are open to that kind of rort?


  10. “The great value that working while studying brings is often overlooked. Young people grasp a whole series of important realities that otherwise remain theoretical or observed only – accountability, responsibility, time management, team work, organisational skills, communication skills.”
    On the contrary the value of work, while real, is overstated and the value of other things correspondingly understated. You could develop all those skills by joining the university debating society.

    “The students doing less paid work in these surveys aren’t getting better results because they are probably filling much of the spare time with other non-academic activities or with inefficiency”
    God forbid our lives should be inefficient. Think of this: an engineering student with no interest in ‘classical music’ drops in to one of free concerts given by music students – out of curiosity, because it’s just there conveniently on campus, because there might be girls there to meet, because he has the time – and finds that seeing people play the music is completely different to hearing it on the radio or CD. A whole new world of interest opens up. That’s a university education -terribly inefficient though.


  11. Russell

    That’s the pity of VSU. So much serendipitous inefficiency was surrendered without sensible compromise. Ideology came before commonsense.

    I think you can see value in both the serendipitous and in part time work.


  12. No, inefficiency means taking too long to do a task because you are not focused, such as debating inefficiency on blogs while at work:)


  13. Rafe,

    I agree with you (I’m thinking of moving actually). But then its the Entitlement Generation (apparently — you’re probably more up with that stuff than me). It’ll be interesting to see how long 4th year holds out as something useful. If it doesn’t, it will force people to do a 5th and possibly 6th year for what they used to learn in 3 (not unlike the US — however, their high school system is worse than ours overall, so they probably need it more). I imagine doctors and dentists don’t have this problem because (a) you have to be excellent to get in (numbers were never stupidly increased beyond capacity); (b) I imagine the mindset is different (I really am here to become a doctor, not to waste time); and (c) the professional body can impose standards, and its in its own interest to impose strict ones.


  14. Rob – or course the students who were off campus working rather than swanning around listening to free concerts (presumably because their rich parents can afford to keep them in the manner to which they are accustomed) probably welcomed VSU 🙂


  15. “You could develop all those skills by joining the university debating society.”

    That may be so Russell – and if that is all that you have to offer a new employer, fine – but you can’t really fault employers who prefer people who have demonstrated that they can actually deliver in a work environment (as well as having the requisite academic quals of course).

    Of course, if the new job involves arguing a lot, having been in the debating society would probably be a plus 🙂


  16. “Its more than unemployment benefits.”

    But Conrad – don’t you understand that students need a higher standard of living than unemployed layabouts? They are, after all, part of society’s elite (sorry Russell) 🙂


  17. “people who have demonstrated that they can actually deliver in a work environment ”

    BG – did you ever have the time to read a book called One Dimensional Man? Herbert Marcuse? It wasn’t on any course I had but I saw it in the uni bookshop, you know, just browsing, and it was worth reading ……


  18. Sorry, Russell – doesn’t sound like the kind of book I would pick up to browse through. Anyway I read for entertainment, not to improve my mind. Would Marcuse get a job in a university these days, do you think?

    You know, I’m not against employers giving jobs to people without a work history – I’m all for it if they are the best person for the job. It’s all about how you work that out really. In fact, these days, having gone through university without working would be a pretty solid indicator of a certain class background, which might be attractive to a certain kind of employer, who knows?


  19. And I’m not at all opposed to people having an intellectual and cultural life – I’m just intrigued that you seem to think that having a job somehow gets in the way of that.


  20. I read One Dimensional Man when I was an undergraduate. I can remember wondering what drugs Marcuse was taking when he wrote it. A loonier version of Clive Hamilton’s books, as I recall it.


  21. Careful Andrew, having the time to read the likes of Marcuse (I can see he wasn’t a formative influence) might be “a pretty solid indicator of a certain class background”.

    BG we don’t really know how much more broadening of their education students would do if they had more time, but from Conrad’s experience we can anticipate that the “…. For Dummies” books will soon be all that students are required or have time to read. But they will have certificates of accomplishment from, oh, when they graduated from their first child care centre.

    At lunch time I walked across a park filled with city workers – once upon a time a fair proportion of them would have been reading a paperback. All I could see today were people gossiping on or fiddling with mobile phones.


  22. Ha, BG! I can’t think of a single employer in this country who would actively seek a graduate from the rentier class.


  23. BG – One Dimensional Man is free online – you can read it at work!

    Don’t believe Andrew though – the prose is a bit of a slog, for example, the opening of the chapter The Conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness: Repressive Desublimination:
    ” In this chapter, certain key notions and images of literature and their fate will illustrate how the progress of technological rationality is liquidating the oppositional and transcending elements in the “higher culture.” They succumb in fact to the process of desublimation which prevails in the advanced regions of contemporary society. ”

    God, we were serious in 1970 – this is what we were reading for entertainment!


  24. There’s an obvious selection issue here. Someone studying full time while working substantial hours is likely to be exceptionally motivated – those whose finances preclude study without part-time work and who are only modestly motivated towards getting a degree won’t be in the sample (because they won’t be students). So these results are quite consistent with part time work causing reduced marks (ie if they didn’t have to work those extra-motivated people would do even better).

    Yet another case where you can’t validly draw a causal inference from a simple bivariate correlation.


  25. Or: people have a rough idea of their own capacities, and people who can work longer hours do so if they want the money.

    There is also an assumption here that all students are marks-maximisers, which is not the case.


  26. I think you logic is wrong DD (although I agree about drawing the causal inference). Based on your logic:
    1) Those that work substantial hours and study are highly motivated
    2) Those that work substantial hours but are not motivated don’t study
    3) Those that don’t work substantial hours may or may not study.
    I wouldn’t neccesarily believe (1). We have lots of students that work reasonable hours that are not especially motivated. Often its because they just want to finish their degree, doing it because they feel they need a degree etc. . We also have motivated students in group (3), especially in 3rd year (there’s lots of competition into 4th year, and lots of competition in 4th year — of course we have lots of unmotivated guys too, excluding 4th year, who have essentially given-up or never really started). So I imagine the difference between (1) and (3) is less than you imagine.
    An alternative (that is not neccesarily independent of your suggestion for individuals) is those that work a large amount of time esesntially don’t care what they are learning for they figure they need a degree for other reasons (“I have a degree!”), and hence don’t try as hard, and hence are willing to work more. That would be easy to test, incidentally.


  27. Russell – if your Marcuse quote is representative of his writings, all I can say is I have absolutely no desire ever to read him. That kind of mind improvement, I’m sure I can do without.


  28. True, Conrad, you can think of other possible selection mechanisms here and some of them might even work in the opposite direction to the one I’ve highlighted. But my error, if error it was, was not in logic but in ignoring the possibility of these other mechanisms.

    Anyway it doesn’t change my bottom line one whit. Where there is a serious possibility of selection bias simply looking at how marks correlate with hours worked tells us absolutely nothing about whether hours worked raises or lowers marks for individuals. You need to either remove the selection biases with a well-controlled experiment or use some statistical technique (eg instrumental variables) that can identify and properly account for them before you can draw such conclusions.

    It’s the sort of problem that makes good social science so difficult.


  29. My contact hours when I studied Accounting were 12 hours per week.

    On top of that I did about an extra 10 hours of study in my own time in the entire semester and got high distinctions for every subject.

    Although I have to admit I did buy another student’s assignment off him and handed it in, best $30 I ever spent.

    I usually completed my assigned tutorial work in the 10 minutes or so that the tutor prattled on at the beginning of every session.

    So yeah, I can see how big a hassle it would have been to work at the same time, not that I bothered.

    Maybe the people who need 20 hours of time a week to study in order to pass shouldn’t be there in the first place. Just sayin’.


  30. Yobbo – have you ever heard the expression that what you get out of something depends on what you put into it ?
    (Accounting is probably the exception that proves the rule.)


  31. I’m on Youth Allowance at the moment and have recently changed (for financial reasons) from averaging about 5 hours per week on one job to about 15+ hours per week on two. Having never worked two jobs before, I was a bit pessimistic about the idea, indeed believing that my academic performance would suffer because of it. Quite the opposite though.

    There’s certainly a lot of benefits. For most of this year I’ve been almost entirely dependent on my parents (and the government) for the things I want. This has left me feeling like I was living from paycheck to paycheck (as many people describe their own situation) and building up too much debt (to my parents, though there’s been no obligation to pay them back). So one of the most obvious benefits is the independence and that it gives me.

    There’s also the fact that my parents have more money to spend on other things, and I just happen to find mindless repetitive tasks as relieving of stress. And, of course, it gives me extra experience and an extra referee for my resume and any future job opportunities.

    I can’t imagine what anyone has to gain from living off the earnings of others (like I was off my parents) when they don’t have to.


  32. Also, the whole reason for that post (which I incidentally left out) is because I’m interested in other peoples opinions on the application process for Youth Allowance (and I presume other welfare payments). It really is quite horrendouse. I’m still up in the air about whether to actually get rid of it on the grounds that if I do need it in the future it’s just too much trouble (for both me and my parents) to go through all that again when I don’t have to if I keep it.


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