University students spending more hours doing paid work while studying – survey

The average number of hours that full-time university students are spending doing paid work alongside their studies has increased, a survey suggests.

Nearly three in five (56%) university undergraduates are in paid employment during term time, compared with 55% the previous year, the study has found.

Students in paid employment are working an average of 14.5 hours per week, compared with 13.5 hours last year, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank and Advance HE report.

The director of Hepi warned that students are now divided into those who can afford to have a “traditional” experience and those who have to do paid work.

Three in four (75%) students feel that the cost-of-living crisis has negatively affected their studies, according to the survey of 10,319 full-time undergraduates studying in the UK.

Cost-of-living concerns was the most stated factor influencing perceptions of value for students who state that they received poor value for money, according to the report.

The 2024 Student Academic Experience Survey, carried out between January and March, suggests that students now spend an average of 42 hours per week in paid work and study.

The report said this level is “above the UK average” number of paid working hours for the full-time working population – which stands at 36.9 hours.

Students studying health subjects such as medicine, dentistry or veterinary studies typically spend an average of 55.9 hours per week in paid work and study, according to the report.

The report found that nearly three in 10 (28%) students said concerns or challenges around the cost of living had negatively affected their studies “a lot”, compared with 26% last year.

Meanwhile, 47% of students said the cost-of-living crisis was affecting their studies “a little”.

The report warns that university students are “now embattled” by the cost-of-living crisis, which could affect the higher education delivery model if its impact remains unaddressed.

It added: “Most students now work, and the average number of hours worked by those students is teetering on levels that may impact their studies.

“Should this trend continue, there is a risk that ‘full-time study’ becomes unsustainable for an increasing number of students.

“The cost-of-living pressures may also force a further move to commuting, rather than residential living.”

The report calls on the Government and devolved governments to review their maintenance support systems to ensure that students are adequately funded while completing their studies.

It says universities should consider that part-time work for students is the “new normal” and they should consider compressing timetabled hours into fewer days per week or providing paid work.

The survey also found that 62% of students use artificial intelligence (AI) in their studies in a way that is allowed by their university.

There is some evidence of a “digital divide”, with male students and international students more likely to use AI tools more frequently, it found.

The report said: “The data shows that students who have more contact hours, students who do more intensive courses like medicine, those who do more hours of paid employment and those who commute a longer distance are all more likely to use AI tools daily.

“This suggests AI tools are being used by at least some students to save time in busy schedules. Some students may also be using AI while doing paid work.”

The survey also found that 69% of students said they still had at least some of their lectures held online despite a return to face-to-face interactions following the pandemic.

The report suggests that potential changes in students’ preferences – and “advances in the ability to use technology to maximise flexibility and inclusiveness” – are likely to have played a role in the continuation of hybrid teaching on multiple courses in many institutions.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said: “Students have responded to the severe cost-of-living pressures by doing more paid employment alongside their academic studies.

“But more students, especially those from poorer backgrounds, are doing so much paid work that their studies are being adversely affected.”

He told a press briefing in London: “We already have more than half of full-time undergraduates doing levels of paid work that are in the danger zone.

“(It means) much less extracurricular activity from those people and also there is evidence that shows it affects your academic studies in terms of getting a first and a 2.1 and things like that.”

He added: “My view is that we’re already in the danger zone.

“We bifurcated the undergraduate between those who can afford to have the traditional university experience most of us had, and those for whom actually paid work has to come first.”

Rose Stephenson, director of policy and advocacy at Hepi, said the increase in the number of students balancing paid work with their studies could affect their studies and result in them “missing out” on the social side of university.

She told the media: “As students battle the cost of living, the trend around part-time work becomes more concerning.

“Most students work and the number of hours they work is increasing. And if this trend continues, full-time study may become unfeasible for many students.

“The UK prides itself on its traditional full-time residential study model for many, not all, students with high completion rates. There’s a chance that without intervention, the higher education model may accidentally evolve.”