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.