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.