Universities squeeze timetables so students can earn more

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer raised a few eyebrows when he suggested he wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to university today. However, while students wait to hear how he will ease their hardships if Labour wins the next general election, a number of British universities are tweaking timetables so students can work more hours while they are studying.

Some universities are experimenting with block teaching and compacting lectures and tutorials over two or three days, while others are offering courses where teaching is done in either the mornings or afternoons so that students can get regular part-time paid employment on set days or times each week.

Earning while learning is nothing new, at least not in the United Kingdom, but some higher education experts are worried by the normalisation and active facilitation of students working almost full time while they are on courses they are supposed to be studying full time.

One of those concerned by the trend is Jim Dickinson, a former student leader who is now an associate editor for the higher education think tank Wonkhe.

What is a full-time course, anyway?

In a blog post published on 29 August, titled “What even is a ‘full-time’ course anyway?”, Dickinson tried to make sense of the regulations distinguishing full- and part-time courses and the different levels of maintenance loan support British students can receive when they are classified as studying full or part time.

Dickinson was responding to a front-page news story in The Observer newspaper by Julie Henry which said more universities are “reducing the number of days students are required to be on campus to enable them to work part time as they struggle to survive the cost-of-living crisis”.

She wrote: “The move makes it easier for the growing number of undergraduates who have to take on part-time jobs to make ends meet” as “inadequate maintenance loans barely cover accommodation costs”.

Henry’s Observer story echoed comments by Clare Marchant, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), and reported by University World News, when she told a webinar on the eve of the release of the A-level results: “What is very different this year is student expectations once they reach university, with the cost-of-living crisis uppermost in students’ minds and almost two-thirds expecting to have to take a part-time job alongside their studies. That’s very different to what it was like when I was a student.”

Block teaching

De Montfort University in Leicester is among those experimenting with new timetables to enable students to take on more paid employment. It tested the idea last year on some courses and received encouraging feedback.

A university spokesperson told University World News the institution was changing the way they teach undergraduate students by introducing “block teaching”.

She said: “For most courses, instead of studying four modules at a time, students study one module for seven weeks – allowing our students to focus on each topic in depth [and] receive faster feedback. The simpler timetable allows our students a better work/life balance.”

Internal surveys showed students were 10% happier with the block teaching timetable and 93% in favour of studying one module at a time, said the spokesperson.

“In future we will also be looking at how to make the timetables as efficient as possible for students. We are acutely aware of how challenging rising costs are making life for students, and the university has a number of measures in place to help support our students, including a support fund to which students facing any kind of economic difficulties can apply for help,” she said.

The new timetables to be introduced across the university from this autumn will also help commuter students living locally as they will only need to travel to the campus several times a week rather than four or five times for an hour’s lecture here and a seminar there.

The Observer reported that Sunderland, Coventry and Roehampton in south-west London were among the other universities where they had found timetables being tweaked to concentrate teaching and learning into fewer days to make it easier for students to plan ahead and fit in more paid work.

Professor Leigh Robinson, pro vice-chancellor (Student Outcomes) at the University of Roehampton London, told University World News: “Our students include parents, carers, those that are the first in the family to attend university, and mature students – people who often need an income while they study. We changed our timetables to help them balance part-time work, studying and other commitments.

“From this autumn, first-year students in undergraduate courses will be scheduled to have no more than three days a week of lectures and seminars, enabling them to balance study, part-time work and other commitments. We changed our timetables to help them balance part-time work, studying and other commitments, whilst continuing to provide them with high levels of contact time.”

Teaching to fit around students’ lives

Dr Diana Beech, CEO of London Higher – the voice of universities in the capital – told University World News: “Offering condensed teaching hours in higher education is nothing new and several providers across London have been offering teaching that fits around students’ lives well before the current cost of living crisis.”

She described this as “one of the greatest assets of our higher education sector that there really is something for everyone” and means UK universities can often “cater for a hyper-diverse student body comprising high numbers of mature students”.

She said: “Operating models around compacted timetables, flexible start dates and alternative assessment allow students who would not be able to study in a more ‘traditional’ university setting to access higher education, participate fully and succeed.

“However, while flexibility should be encouraged across the system, it is important that course selection continues to be driven by personal choice and preference, not necessity.”

Beech said bringing back maintenance grants – scrapped by the Conservative government in 2017 – especially for students most at risk of hardship “would be a logical way for policymakers to ensure that the most disadvantaged students are not sacrificing the best learning models for them – just to make ends meet.”

Starmer has hinted that Labour is already having internal discussions about increasing financial support to help poorer students with living costs, while it is becoming clear that his party will ditch the pledge made by his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, to get rid of tuition fees for home students if Labour wins the next general election.

Fairness of loans

Meanwhile, doubts exist about the fairness of the current system of government-supported study loans, according to Dickinson whose blog noted the decade-long collapse of part-time study in the UK after higher tuition fees were introduced in 2012 and questioned whether compacting or cutting teaching on full-time courses to several days a week meant they were no longer really full-time.

He said the current system seems to mean that:

• A 120 credit a year full-time course that only actually requires attending in-person for an hour a week would attract full loans for living costs;

• A 60 credit a year part-time course that requires a student to be in for 2.5 full days a week would only get half the maintenance loan; and

• A 120 credit a year full-time course that requires you to be on campus for six hours a day for five days in your first week, but never requires you to be on campus again, would be “distance” and you’d have no entitlement to a loan.

“I raise all of this not because I think the patterns of attendance that are being promoted as flexible should somehow lose their loan entitlement – although I am increasingly concerned by the normalisation of the idea that you can comfortably undertake full-time study on part-time hours,” he said.

“I raise it because for the ‘part-time’ or ‘distance’ learners above who are getting a pro-rata maintenance or no loan at all, the guidance as it all stands is manifestly and patently unfair – and needs urgent clarification.”

Course ‘intensity’

Beech told University World News: “Whether a degree is full-time or part-time depends on the “course intensity” – that is, the number of modules completed by a student in each academic year – not the number of teaching hours per week.

“An international student could therefore study a full-time degree with condensed teaching hours over, say, three days a week, so long as they are meeting the ‘course intensity’ requirements of their programme and not working over their allocated 20 hours for paid employment as outlined in their student visa conditions,” she said.

She emphasised that higher education in England is already more flexible than many may imagine, adding: “We should avoid seeing part-time and full-time study as simple binary options, where there is in fact a range of study models within these two categories that work for different types of students and their individual circumstances.”

As for Dickinson, he suggests that new legislation around the government’s plan for a Lifelong Loan Entitlement offers a good opportunity to sort things out and provide better support for learners.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.