Does paid work undermine the university experience?

In January I was sceptical, based on studies of student work and academic results, that increasing Youth Allowance to reduce work hours would pay academic dividends.

The first results (pdf) from the Australian Survey of Student Engagement reinforce the conclusion that the average 15 hours a week that undergraduates work for money is not a cause for concern.

The ASSE is based on a questionnaire (in the pdf above), with the questions grouped for analytical purposes according to six scales: academic challenge, active learning, student and staff interactions, enriching educational experiences, supportive learning environment, and work-integrated learning.

It found that, with the exception of work-integrated learning, only those working more than 30 hours a week off campus showed lower results in the various scales. For work-integrated learning those working more than 30 hours did better. Working on-campus was consistently a benefit.

The main reason, I suspect, is that the student lifestyle typically isn’t that busy by the standards of the professional and managerial jobs most students are headed towards. The ASSE finds that more than half of students report spending less than 10 hours a week preparing for class (unfortunately this question is a a bit ambiguous – the prompt is ‘studying, writing, doing homework or lab work, analysing data, rehearsing or other activities’ – which leaves it unclear whether essays or major assignments would be included). Say 15 hours in class, 15 hours at work, and 10 preparing for class, and you have a not very stressful 40 hour week.

This is just a summary report of the ASSE. The questions asked would let us create student timetables covering paid work, class preparation, and campus activities, and compare those with self-reported grade averages. It would be a useful addition to a debate dominated by intuition and anecdote to know more about the relationships between these variables.

11 thoughts on “Does paid work undermine the university experience?

  1. These surveys are confounded — most courses which get large numbers of students that work high hours in them simply get changed to suit those students, often at the expense of others. Thats why lab classes in many areas have gone the way of the dodo.


  2. Conrad is correct.

    “is that the student lifestyle typically isn’t that busy” … “15 hours in class” (p/w)

    Not science/engineering students unless the curriculum (and the utility of the degree) has been cut by 50% in the last 20 years! 15 hours for a two-day physiology or biochemistry prac every week (alternating), plus about 3 hours pracs per other subject, plus lectures. Non-biological courses (e.g. physics and chemistry are similar).

    For non-science/engy students, passing pracs are essential, and can’t be swotted at home using the curriculum and wikipedia!

    Besides, unlike many managers who might have a glass of red over lunch to relax – any alcohol before lab work is a severe safety hazard.

    For chem/physic/biol types it’s closer to 40 contact hours/week, plus preparation time (double contact hours is the usual metric).

    So, add 15 hours (regarded as trivial by Andrew) to that and you’ve got over a 90 hour week. And we wonder why there aren’t enough science/engy granduates!


  3. Yes, 15 hours is for the non-lab courses. Still, more than a third of the ASSE sample were in the more contact time intensive subjects, but only 15% report more than 20 hours study work. There needs to be much more analysis of this data set to establish whether there are overworked groups.


  4. The data’s interesting as a first cut, but it doesn’t show what you say it shows. That students doing 15hrs a week aren’t doing any worse than those not working does not imply that working 15 hours does not harm those students’ achievement.

    Correlation is not causality, and until we can instrument out the selection issues you’re not entitled to draw that conclusion. You need a good econometrician like Andrew Leigh.


  5. DD – Fair point. Though there is an achievement question in the survey, the report only talks about experiences at university. What we can say is that the self-reported experiences of people who work less than 30 hours a week are virtually identical with those who don’t work. There is no published data on whether their results differ (though we would need data about prior academic achievement to analyse that properly).

    I will frame my ‘conclusion’ as a hypothesis, which is looking rather more promising than the alternative, which has to show that a) 15 hours a week harms academic peformance, despite the expected detrimental results compared to non-working students not obvious in the data; b) improved income support would be taken in the form of more free time rather than more money; and c) the free time would be used to study effectively.


  6. That might be true Yobbo, but you should check what they are teaching *today* even in terms of just face-to-face hours, and then see if that aligns with your memory. When I did my degree, for example, it was 24 hours per week, but now I believe it is 16. Here is the UWA cite for you, at least for civil eng. :


  7. Yobbo,

    One other thing you might want consider is what skills the workforce needs and how that relates to your perception. THere was a good talk given where I work from a guy from the US department that keeps track of the labor market, who had super detailed statistics on what employers needed (I should try and find the paper one day). At least in the US, he was saying there are enough people with good mathematics skills (too many in Europe). Alternatively, there were not enough people with good verbal skills (a huge deficit). This of course is nothing at all like what most people believe, since they confound the idea of mathematics, hardness, and what jobs there are. Basically what he was saying was that there were enough engineers and so on, but there were not enough people that could deal with complex documentation on diverse topics that most companies face these days — i.e., they needed more people who were just generally verbally smart which is what degrees in Arts, Law etc. are supposed to teach you (I’m sure some people do learn this if you delete the left hand side of the distribution). This also makes sense of the salaries data in the US — it is not the case that if you go get a science degree (for example) you will be better off than getting a law or other such degree (the opposite in fact — salaries for scientists are hopeless, and the only way that industry remains in the US is thanks to immigration). So my suggestion is that you align your beliefs about good degrees with reality, no matter how horrible that might seem for you if you spent years doing maths and so on.


  8. Yobbo, so engineering students have such poor self-discipline that the only way to ensure they study effectively is to keep them in classes 36 hours a week?

    And no, I don’t really think other students are generally any better in the their first year. Especially private school students (like me) who were mollycoddled through years 11 and 12. I’ll readily admit my first year of uni was a pretty slack one – but in some ways it was what I needed, as I had 0 social skills before entering uni, particularly regarding the opposite sex. I made up for it in my remaining years, taking on two degrees and working part-time.


  9. Conrad: Those are just the engineering subjects. First year engineers are also required to take courses from other schools, for example Calculus and Physics.


  10. “Alternatively, there were not enough people with good verbal skills (a huge deficit). ”

    I’m not sure what this has to do with the differences between business and engineering. There aren’t any subjects at any university that will teach verbal skills. That is what Primary School is for.

    .e., they needed more people who were just generally verbally smart which is what degrees in Arts, Law etc. are supposed to teach you

    Actually they don’t even pretend to try and say that, unless you are talking about a specific stream like Communications. General arts degrees are mostly a 3-year version of Oprah’s book club.


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