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April 27, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

The Great Salient Hunt for Suffering Student Workers

Here in sunny Aotearoa, every campaign gets a moment of glory. This week is the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) ‘Students as Workers’ week. According to President Jasmine Freemantle, the aim of the week is to “educate and engage students on the issue of workers’ rights.” Too reasonable! Defeatist! Why should we be working at all? With my Salient topic assigned and my liberal agenda primed, all I needed was a suffering student worker to make my case concrete.

Higher Education Drop-outs

New Zealand has the third-highest tertiary drop-out rate in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Last year at Victoria University, one sixth of full-time students left without completing a tertiary qualification. Could the psychological burden of working while studying be to blame?

I asked several recent drop-outs for their reasons. Dusty, 22, dropped out of her second year of Theatre and Film Studies because she was unhappy with her courses. “I felt generally maligned by the institution.” She says working while studying was not a major problem. “There should be more support, and student loans suck, but it just shows the sheer determination of students. The supposedly apathetic Generation Y is actually working really hard.”

Former Media Studies student Sophie left university because she “just didn’t have time to study.” She was working mornings at a news agency, nights at a local bar, and found herself booked out with meetings for another creative project during the day. While Sophie technically dropped out due to work commitments, most of her extra-curricular activities were related to her future career path. “I wasn’t doing it to live.”

At first, 20-year-old Ben seemed like the perfect poster boy for my ‘Students Shouldn’t Be Workers’ campaign. He successfully completed the first year of his marketing degree, then dropped out in the middle of last trimester. “I was working three jobs at once. Nights working in hospitality then renovations and office painting during the day.”

Why was Ben working so much? “I had a whole lot of debt to clear. StudyLink overpaid me $42 every week for two years without my knowledge and then wanted me to pay it back in six weeks.” He was able to extend the repayment deadline “until the end of summer” but found himself contractually obliged to finish his job contracts during term time, forcing him to abandon study.

Even so, Ben says he doesn’t usually mind working while studying. “It can be a pain in the ass, mainly because sometimes I had to miss class to cover people. If the rosters work around me, it’s fine.”

Director of Student Services Ruth Moorhouse delivered the final blow to my fledgling theory. “Research shows that finance on its own does not have a significant impact on the exit or retention of our full-time students. Most students drop out of study because they have changed their mind about whether or what they want to study.”

The Stress of Work

I decided to take a step back and check out the stats. StudyLink will lend domestic students $160.24 a week for living costs and dole out an equivalent student allowance to a select few. Most Victoria University students will need an income of at least $250 a week to cover rent and basic expenses. If the gap between these two figures is plugged by part-time work, a student on minimum wage will need to work about 10-15 hours a week.

This seems like a pretty light burden, until you throw in the study workload recommended by the university. According to Deborah Willis, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Humanities and Social Sciences, an average full-time student at Victoria should be doing 60 points per trimester, no matter what degree they are enrolled in, and no matter what level courses they are enrolled in. This is equivalent to roughly 40 hours per week, which is “consistent with workload expectations across all New Zealand universities”.

Consistent, sure, but a 40-hour study workload may not be realistic if students are also working part-time. I asked students around campus how they felt about working while studying.

Politics student Henry, 21, works fifteen hours a week in retail and says he likes his current job. “If it was any other job, I’d be complaining about it though, and I’m pretty jealous of people who don’t have to work”.

Hospitality worker and media student Sarah, 20, is less enthusiastic. “I work because I have to. The government doesn’t provide enough support for me to survive without working.” She says study weeks can be stressful. “The problem is that if you need more time for study, you’ve got those work pressures on your time. You need work to live, so your grades may drop.”

Tim, 21, flips burgers for a living. “It’s perfect while I study because it works around my timetable. It’s the kind of job you can turn up to and just do it, it’s not really a brain task. Late hours were the only problem. Sometimes I’d work until 5am on Saturday and Sunday mornings, then work Sunday nights, then head up for 9am class on Monday morning. I got it changed though, because the management wanted to keep me on.” None of the students I spoke to relished spending their time off campus holed up in kitchens and behind counters, but all seemed to be managing to balance study and work commitments. Perhaps struggling students are not the ones who are visible on campus. I took my search to the student support professionals.

Student Services staff say part-time jobs can contribute to the existing problems of struggling students. Student Learning Support Manager Jan Stewart says working while studying has become the norm. “It’s not an overt problem, although it can bring out the inability of some students to manage their time.”

Counselling Head of Service Gerard Hoffman says while most students can cope with 10-15 hours of work a week, the wrong students try to work too much. “Students who are already vulnerable due to stress and poor mental health, who have less family support and less personal coping skills, for them working long hours is a disaster. They’re the ones we see who come to grief, and they’re the ones for whom not working is not an option.”

He points out that the draft report from the 2007 First Year Student Survey shows only 20% of students disagree or strongly disagree with the statement “I am managing to balance study with other things in my life such as work, family” and only 34% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “worrying about money has made it difficult for me to concentrate on study”.

Maria Goncalves-Rorke, manager of the Financial Support and Advice Service, was the only Student Services staff member who dealt with students struggling as a direct result of work issues. “Many students can’t afford their flats without 10-15 hours of work a week. People come to us for help when their shifts are cut down, or if they’re sick for a few weeks and don’t qualify for sick leave.”

According to Student Support Services, the struggling student worker struggles because of existing stress, poor time management, or if they are unable to continue working. Inflexible rosters may add to the stress of exams and assignment deadlines, but working while studying is not a problem for most.

The Great Fight for Student Worker Rights

Time to bring out the big guns: the New Zealand University Student’s Association (NZUSA) and Unite, mandated to represent university students and low-paid workers respectively. NZUSA are currently campaigning for a universal student allowance, while Unite’s main focus is on raising the minimum wage.

NZUSA Co-President Jordan King studied sociology at Victoria. While studying, he worked around 20 hours a week as a cleaner and call centre operator to supplement his student loan living cost payments. King says he found working while studying a “distraction” and gives his full support to the VUWSA ‘Students as Workers’ week.

“Working takes students off campus and campus culture suffers as a result. If you look through the NZUSA archives, students in the 1970s and early 1980s engaged in far more activities compared to now.

“Students are working more because we’ve had massive fee increases and increases in living costs since the ‘90s, yet the student allowance and amount you can borrow have hardly increased over the last decade. This pushes students into the workforce. The labour market can absorb this in good times, but now students are at the bottom of the heap.”

King is particularly concerned with Student Job Search reports that hospitality and retail jobs advertised with the service are down 20% since last year, while student demand for work has increased by around 17% (refer to Salient Vol. 72 Issue 1 p. 30 for more details).

“With a more active pool of student workers, there will be flow-on effects in terms of student rights in the workplace, wages and conditions. We have concerns about unscrupulous employers. While NZUSA do not deal with infringements on workers’ rights directly, we are happy to provide students with advice on which union to join.”

Unite are a community union who represent fast food industry workers, hotel cleaners, call centre operators and other low wage workers, and have a high proportion of student members. As Wellington organiser Matt Jones put it, “we represent the underrepresented”.

Jones agrees that the current situation for student and low-paid workers is tough. “Over the last 20-30 years the cost of living has gone through the roof, and the average wage earned has not increased in relation to that. We’re campaigning to lift the minimum wage to $15. Once we get that, we’ll work towards lifting it to 75% of the average weekly income. Right now, that should be around $20.”

While Unite don’t have a specific policy regarding students as workers, Jones says he also backs a universal student allowance. “I think student fees should be dropped and all student debt abolished. We believe in free education for all.”

In addition to the tightening job market, Jones identifies the recently introduced Employment Relations Amendment Act as a potential danger zone for student workers.
“Unite are the only union to say to workers across the country, if you’re fired due to the 90-day ‘hire and fire’ bill then we’ll be there to picket pretty quick.”

A Bit of Perspective

International student Andrea, 22, works 20-25 hours a week to pay for her rent, basic expenses, and photography material costs. “It’s not impossible to live, but it’s hard to save. It’s hard to be creative if you don’t have time, and I’m limited in what I can do. I feel like I’m not giving 100% in anything.” Andrea thinks domestic students have it easy. “My boyfriend gets money from the government, he doesn’t have to work and he has plenty of time to do well at uni. He doesn’t have to worry about his rent, and his family are here to help.” I’m inclined to agree. The suffering New Zealand student worker is elusive, maybe even mythical. Students are not dropping out due to financial pressure. Students are only suffering psychologically as a result of part-time work when it exacerbates existing problems. The danger of student workers being exploited by employers is a more serious issue, but NZUSA and Unite have got the collective student back fairly well covered. Domestic students in 2009 have got it pretty damn cherry… …except for that looming elephant of student debt in the corner.


About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

Comments (4)

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  1. Boomer says:

    Students – you’re all a bunch of pussies. Harden up and stop wasting your money on Ipods, ridiculous fashions and pornography and then maybe you won’t have to work so hard. Pathetic.

  2. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    “Students – you’re all a bunch of pussies. Harden up and stop wasting your money on Ipods, ridiculous fashions and pornography and then maybe you won’t have to work so hard. Pathetic.”

    I’m a student, and neither I nor any other student I know wastes their money on these things. Generalisations, negative stereotypes and name-calling will get you nowhere.

    Nina: Good article, nicely researched. I’m inclined to agree with your conclusions – I think juggling work and study is more than possible for the average student.

    I disagree with Matt Jones’s assertion that tertiary education should be completely free. I’m more than happy with the existing student loan scheme, although I do think that a student allowance should be made available to more students. I’d hesitate against making it universal but I would like to see the qualifications for it lowered so as to incorporate more students – especially those in dire financial need. I think that living it cheap kind of goes hand in hand with being a university student – it certainly did for me during my first degree, and it was almost a badge of pride in that respect – but there is of course a difference between living it cheap and not being able to live at all.

    Fact of the matter is, tertiary education IS a money-making business – an industry like any other. One can argue all they want about free education for all, but in reality university is about distinguishing ones’ self from the crowd. That is why state-guaranteed education only goes as high as secondary school. I do think that university should be AVAILABLE and ACCESSIBLE to all (rather than FREE), but I do also still think that it should be SELECTIVE based on merit. Nevertheless, one’s financial situation should not be allowed to deny them the chance to better themselves.

    Cheers, Matt.

  3. Superior Mind says:

    Boomer do you honestly think students waste their money on pornography when it’s free on the internet?

  4. kezz gee says:

    I think the reseacher has forgotten that ppl drop out because they fail.Yes fail.
    boomer………you are a very unfortunate person.

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