The benefits of paid work while studying

I have in the past been sceptical of claims that encouraging students to spend fewer hours in paid work is a worthwhile public policy goal. Recent research supports this scepticism.

The most detailed findings are from the Graduate Pathways Survey. Key points:

* no relationship between paid work and average overall grade
* working for pay during study is positively related to employment after graduation
* mean satisfaction score for those not working was 62 – the same as those working between 11 and 20 hours
* developmental outcomes were enhanced through paid work – an increase from 42 to 46 on the 100-point scale

Developmental questions related to understanding people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, solving complex, real-world problems, developing a personal code of values and ethics, contributing to the welfare of your community, developing general industry awareness and understanding different social contexts.

As in previous research, the negatives only develop with very long hours at paid work, well beyond what most full-time undergraduates are doing. Key points:

* general learning outcomes declined for those working 31 hours a week or more
* satisfaction with study declined from 65 to 55 on the 100-point scale with increases in graduates’ work from 1 to 40 hours per week.

‘General learning outcomes’ are questions relating to acquiring job- or work-related knowledge and skills, writing clearly and effectively, speaking clearly and effectively, thinking critically and analytically, analysing quantitative problems, working effectively with others, learning effectively on your own and using computing and information technology.

The Australian Survey of Student Engagement has less information, but again fails to find problems.

The AuSSE report says that (emphsis added) ‘active learners tended to spend more time each week preparing for class, were working for pay on- or off-campus, participated in extracurricular activities, spent fewer hours relaxing and socialising, [and] spent more time managing their personal business…’. The active learning scale ‘[focused] on whether students participate in class discussions and presentations, collaborate with and teach ther students, and extend their learning beyond the classroom’.

‘Participation in enriching activities [a broad category including volunteer work, conversations with people of a different ethnic or religious background, extracurricular campus activities and study abroad] remained constant irrespective of the number of hours spent in off-campus paid work, the exception being when paid work commitments were more than 30 hours per week.’

‘While students working for pay on campus reported greater feelings of support from their institution (an average of 58.5) than those not taking part in such work (52.6), the hours spent working for pay off campus were correlated with slight, but steady, decreases in perceptions of support.’

The only contrary evidence comes from a survey of student finances in 2007 which found that more than 40% of student respondents said that their work affected their performance at university. Maybe they would have done better if they worked less.

But my view remains that while there are undoubtedly bursts of intense activity during the university year, in an average week students can get away with a light workload, compared to full-time employees. Getting things done is a matter of effective time management, as suggested by the attributes the AuSSE finds associated with the ‘active learners’. These all seem linked to these individuals being well organised, an attribute that creates time for paid work, and which paid work probably fosters. Their subsequent relative success in the labour market is possibly due to employers recognising the value of well-organised graduates.

I don’t want to discount the value of free time at university. While I suspect many students waste it with procrastination and distractions, it can be hugely beneficial in acquiring friendships, experiences and knowledge. It was for me. But these things can also be acquired in many jobs, and with good time management there is space for work, study and wider university life.

15 thoughts on “The benefits of paid work while studying

  1. “I don’t want to discount the value of free time at university. While I suspect many students waste it with procrastination and distractions, it can be hugely beneficial in acquiring friendships, experiences and knowledge …. But these things can also be acquired in many jobs, and with good time management there is space for work, study and wider university life.”
    Yes, but experiences and knowledge are varied aren’t they – one might be pleased to have one’s at-university-daughter singing in a choir, playing tennis, visiting galleries and museums, rather than, say, working part-time as a prostitute. All knowledge and experience – but different.
    This is a subject hard to generalise about because (probably) most people see university as a vocational ed. factory. Their approach to study will dovetail quite nicely with work, and doing both at the same time will help them. That’s fine for them. But there are surely still students who want to approach their (probably humanities) studies differently, where the formal study is just part of a broader exploration of ideas. Then there’s never enough time for reading, talking and listening.
    The survey results you are quoting have to be considered in relation to other data too – I read recently about how sleep deprived a lot of young people are. There are rewards for joining in the hyper-busy modern lifestyle, but costs too. What you call time management might be in fact overscheduling ones life.


  2. A problem with those surveys is that courses get structured so that the average student can get through without too many complaints. My belief is that the amount of course content and assessment people use in courses is less than what it once was (indeed, most courses simply have far fewer contact hours than many years ago), and this is one of the reasons. My bet is that if you looked at specific courses where they haven’t been able to diminish the content as much, people would work on average much less.


  3. Conrad – As I understand it, some courses have fewer tutorials than in the past. I think you are also right that some courses, by the nature of the professional admission requirements, have not cutback in the way some others have (highlighting again the need for external review). However, I’m not so sure that the amount of work required is significantly less than in the past. The main reason for this is the rise of essay-based assessment and a reduction in the weight given to exams. This was happening in the Monash law school when I was an undergraduate there in the mid to late 1980s, and as someone who used to play student politics for much of the semester and then cram for exams I can recall the demands of essays making a big difference to my time scheduling in the later parts of my degree.


  4. “However, I’m not so sure that the amount of work required is significantly less than in the past. The main reason for this is the rise of essay-based assessment and a reduction in the weight given to exams”
    I agree that aside from the reduction in contact hours in most courses (science, engineering, languages, …), it would be very useful to have the number of hours students actually work (there’s also no consistency across similar subjects at different universities since it is somewhat driven by the person who actually runs the course, which makes things even trickier). For example, whilst I agree that the proportion of marks for exams has generally decreased, it’s not clear to me that students put less work in simply because of that. My feeling is that the amount of work students put into things is only very weakly related to the percentage of the course it is worth once you go over a certain amount. I also think that whilst students do less than many years ago, I think this is only one factor. In fact, I think the biggest factor was placing too much importance on “quality surveys”. The big problem with these is that if only some percentage of students complain about having to read things, do research, do a large assignment etc. (and they certainly do) and mark courses down for it (which they do), courses get changed to please them (no-one complains about not having to do enough). This then becomes cyclical, because other students habituate to doing very little and expect it too — even if they have lots of time, and that occurs across subjects. Thus if someone else’s subject is too easy, the expectation is that yours will be too. Thus, even if only a minority work too much (or are just too lazy), all students end up doing less because of it, yet all seems fine based on student satisfaction surveys.
    I must admit that I had that nasty experience when I came back to Australia and it appears widespread, at least based on hearsay (and that’s all there is). The students where I had been teaching OS were quite to happy to read an article before a tute or for a lecture (I should thank their first year lecturers for creating that expectation). However, at the new place, many of the students had no intention of reading anything more than a page or two, and I ended up with numerous complaints because of this (why couldn’t I just lip-sinc the book in my lectures?). I remember talking to an English literature lecturer about this, who laughed that even his students often didn’t read the books anymore. So my Australian experience is that a big reason students do less is simply because they expect too, although this indirectly may have been caused by work commitments of some minority of students .


  5. A survey of first years found that ‘The mean number of course contact hours per week for full-time first year students has declined steadily over the past decade from 17.6 hours in 1994 to 17.1 in 1999 and an average of 16 contact hours per week in 2004.’ The 2004 survey found that they spend an average of 11 hours a week on study; unfortunately no earlier compararative data.

    The question in the AuSSE on academic time unfortunately only refers to hours per week spent preparing for class – work for assessment would not in my mind be included in this. 62% spend less than 10 hours per week. Add this to approximately 16 contact hours and we can see that the routine level of effort required is low.

    The open question in my mind is whether there really is any long-term decline in student academic work. While there are factors consistent with it, there are other factors that would suggest that students might work harder: continuous assessment, as mentioned, a tougher job market for graduates since the early 1970s, and a greater financial cost to failure since HECS. Both my experience 25 years ago and memoirs of earlier generations suggest that the average student now is no slacker and quite possibly harder-working than in the past – certainly they would be in total hours (academic and non-academic) worked.

    Australian unis are slacker than unis overseas, but probably they always have been.

    The decline in contact hours has been driven by university cost-cutting, not by student preferences.


  6. So my initial reaction was that this is wrong. My experience over the last 10 plus years is that too much external work is generally a negative for uni students. I can’t count the number of students I’ve dealt with who are failing because they are doing too much paid work, and by too much I mean probably 15 plus hours and definitely 20 plus hours. The number of students who can cope with 30 plus hours is very small.

    But the figures look pretty good, so I wondered why the discrepancy and then I realised what the name of the report is:

    “The 2008 Graduate Pathways Survey: Graduates’ education and employment outcomes five years after

    completion of a bachelor degree at an Australian university”

    and the key word is “completion”. This doesn’t include any of the students who dropped out and I think this puts a bias on the results in terms of determining the effect of paid work on performance at University and its ongoing effect. I’m not surprised that those doing paid work had slightly better outcomes, these are the winners, the ones who have learnt to cope with heavy workloads, if they weren’t better than those who just had to manage Uni alone, that would be surprising.

    But when we do the At Risk process, doing too much work comes up regularly as the thing causing the problem and experience shows that once a student starts down this path of failure, it’s hard for them to pull out of it.

    Now, I’m in a degree, where while there is only 12 contact hours a week, we expect you to do 40 hours a week overall and where many of our students need to put those 28 hours a week in outside class to get through. So if they are doing 20 hours a week at Coles, plus 40 at Uni, you have a 60 hour week. I don’t know about you, but even now, I find 60 hour weeks difficult to continually do, let alone trying to do them when I was 18 or 19.


  7. Martin – I agree that all this research relies on respondents for whom universities have contact records, and if we could find the drop-outs the results could change. On the other hand, 2004 first year research found that students not working did less than 2 hours a week more study than those who were working, suggesting that slackness rules regardless of whether students work for money or not. As for the 28 study hours you think your students should do, AuSSE finds that only 6% of first years and 7% of later years do this much. There is no course breakdown, but I suspect these would be concentrated in a small number of faculties where you genuinely do have to work hard to pass.

    Overall attrition rates seem to be heading slightly downwards, so clearly most people can cope. The better employment outcomes for students who worked are also interesting – from a ruthless human capital perspective, the early academic failure of those who cannot cope with study and work may be a culling device that removes those unlikely to be able to deal with the often much tougher demands of professional and managerial work.


  8. Humanities students need time to daydream. That’s what it says, sort of, in the latest New Scientist.
    “Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths University [so there] has also found that an unfocused brain is most likely to generate creative solutions” (Pg 33). Your brain could be unfocused after working an 8 hour shift waiting on tables at your local cafe, but that’s not what they mean.
    Apparently letting your mind wander is associated with increased activity in the right hemisphere “which is associated with processing loose associations” and creative thinking. So economics students can keep busy if they like, but the arts students need to stimulate their creativity with some, you know, time out.


  9. But there’s also an obvious selection effect here (organised and motivated students are more likely to take a job, organised and motivated students are more likely to get good results) which means these results on their own say nothing about whether part time work causes better or worse results. Correlation does not imply causality.

    This is separate from the attrition bias Martin points to, which is also a real issue here. Plus an entry selection effect – students who have to work may decide not to start study at all.

    You need some high-powered econometrics to deal with all these. Meanwhile, to be frank, they are not evidence of much at all.


  10. DD – I have you have to control for organisation and motivation to find an effect, you have already conceded the point: that the problem is not too few hours in the week, but the inadequate personal skills and/or attitudes of some students. These have to be fixed if they are going to be successful, and so the welfare system should not reward them by buying them time to procrastinate.


  11. Andrew,

    I think you’re going a bit further than the data takes you, the attrition bias puts a big doubt over any conclusions that you might want to draw as to the general impact of work on the success of students at University.

    The fact that students don’t do enough work at Uni, provides a convincing explanation of the high failure rate at first year. In terms of workload, in the past I’ve regularly had students fill in time sheets for their assignment work, which combined with their attendance records lets me know that quite a number of my students reach or go close to the 120 hours per semester they should be doing for my subject and the ones who don’t are the ones who fail to a large degree.

    If attrition rates are going down, it’s only because people like myself are putting a lot of work in to try and make them go down. Personally, despite a number of initiatives, I’m having great difficulty in reducing failure rates (which lead to attrition) in my course, I’m hoping for some effect this semester :-). All 22 of my students turned up to their week 10 tutorial, which bodes well.

    It’s quite clear that a significant number of students who enter university are lacking in the personal attributes and skills to cope with Uni study. This is not surprising, they are mostly 17 and 18 year olds and while we like to think that we were all grown up and mature when we left year 12, very few of us actually were. Students do a lot of growing up over their university degrees. It seems unlikely to me, that taking away the AusStudy allowance for a student is a particularly effective way of improving their personal attributes and skills. A little bit like throwing a child in at the deep end, most of them will swim, but some of them will drown.

    Whether the support given to students by the government just allows them to procrastinate or whether it allows a significant number of students to get through University, when otherwise they would drop out, can’t really be determined at this time.

    I really should look into this in more detail in the degree I run.
    The stumbling block of course, would be identifying the students who receive AusStudy, are you aware of any method of obtaining this data, apart from just asking them (with all its attendant ethical and sampling problems)?




  12. Martin – While I am lukewarm on Youth Allowance, I have not advocated its general abolition. But nor do I think the large number of students doing part time work provides a reason for extending it in the hope that hours at work will go down – on the evidence current average hours are not a significant academic problem for the vast majority of students who do persist, and nor is it clearly a major factor in those that drop out. They are a harder group to study, but first-year research in 2004 found that only 12% of those considering deferring cited paid work commitments as an important or very important factor.

    There is no way that Centrelink will give you identifying data. It was an ordeal even getting aggregate data for the University of Melbourne out of them a few years back. The Universities Australia survey of student finances had a YA question, but from memory no academic performance data.


  13. Andrew,

    fair enough, I was interpreting your statement to Derrida Derider of “so the welfare system should not reward them by buying them time to procrastinate.” as a call to get rid of YA for uni students.

    Again I think you are interpreting far too much in to the 2004 first year data, citing paid work commitments as a possible reason for deferring is a very different issue to failing subjects in your first year because you’re doing too much work. Deferring students are not at all representative of students as a whole as far as I’m aware. So, for me, this is still an open question.

    I sort of guessed that the data would be unavailable, I was just hoping you had a quick (if not miraculous) way around the problem. I survey my starting students and I plan to survey current students in the degree about a range of topics, I’ll guess I’ll add a question on paid work and whether they receive YA to add to my data set and see what comes out. You may be right and it may not have an effect on the great majority of students, analysing my student data has surprised me before, and I’m sure it will again.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s