By Gary Elbert
In an ideal world, every student attending NUI Galway would be housed in affordable and well-maintained accommodation, where tenant rights are respectfully adhered to by dignified and regulated landlords. In this fantasy setting, no student is left scrambling desperately for the most rudimentary and unhygienic lodgings days before semester one begins.
In this parallel universe, students can focus solely on their academic ambitions, free of stress and worry about precarious accommodation. The option to work a part time job allows a student to gain some real-world experience, while covering essential bills and rent.
For many students this option does not exist. They must work evenings, weekends, and unsocial hours in low wage jobs to fund their educational and living requirements. The notion of students being allowed to focus solely on their studies seems almost absurdly idealistic in the current political and economic climate.
Students have traditionally been exploited in Irish society. Only the truly wealthy and upper middle class can afford to bankroll their offspring’s educational needs free from the distraction of work, worry, and unkempt hovels. Drunken student misdemeanours repeatedly help to damage an overarching and consolidated activist approach towards students’ current plight.
Most students will work in the hospitality and service industry primarily due to the suitability of the time frames available. Many students have no choice but to miss lectures to ensure a roof is over their head and their fridge is stocked.
The precarious unsocial nature of the work most students undertake combined with the exploitative accommodation leads to the question: How much of an impact does this situation have on student outcomes and levels of educational attainment? Are those working twenty to thirty hours a week at risk of diluting their educational potential, leading to unsatisfactory and underwhelming exam results?
Studies in the USA concerned with academic performance and employment during higher education have delivered mixed and contradictory reviews. However, the negative consequences of combining work and study can lead to an “overload of commitment, increased psychological stress, and anxiety related to academic failure,” according to a researcher investigating stress levels of students.
Another study proposed that a failure to fully identify with the student role is another marker of employment interfering with academic achievement. A lack of identification with student life negates realisation of the full student experience. The student who works may not have enough time to fully integrate with the diverse opportunities available on campus. He or she is less likely to form strong communication lines with lecturers and professors. The social aspect of student life may also be reduced due to external pressures around employment and financial needs.
The concept of imposter syndrome can thus be amplified by those students struggling to enjoy the extracurricular pursuits and opportunity for personal development outside the lecture and tutorial rooms. Mature students and those entering the system from deprived social backgrounds often report feelings of imposter syndrome plaguing their academic endeavours and thus the added caveat of working outside the sheltered campus bubble may only reinforce those outsider emotions.
Naturally an opposite view can be taken. Students who juggle work and study time may learn the importance of time management, as well as developing their personal, social and employability skills, thus improving their desire to ascend the income ladder.
Both standpoints may or may not be true depending on the student, their personal circumstances, their psychological make up and most importantly the nature of the work being undertaken while striving to academic excellence. Another significant variable is the avenue of study being pursued, underscored by the competence and diligence of lecturers and teachers themselves. Is a 1.1 more difficult in certain areas such as computational degrees, thus requiring enhanced commitment to study, as opposed to certain humanity and social science curriculums where we know the attrition rate is decreased?
Many variables exist when it comes to studying the effects of employment on study, including social background, ability to self-motivate, and the composition of work environments. However, it is difficult to argue against the case that precarious employment is on the rise, with employers in a much more powerful position to hire, fire, and ignore minimum legal working practices. I believe this is due to the ongoing, post bail-out neo-liberalist economic policies being pursued by the current centre right administration. That trend is evident in universities themselves, where many students are taking classes lectured by academics who themselves are struggling under the weight of precarious work arrangements.
A study of Italian undergraduates found that a distinction is made between those working “low intensity hours” (under 15 hours per week) and those working “high intensity hours” (15 – 34) with the obvious consequence that the more hours work a student undertook, the more likely his or her’s academic potential would be stifled.
An Irish longitudinal study of this question would be most welcome. For now, students must segregate work-related stress and demands from effective academic performance. This can be done through diligent time management, consistent leisure time, and perhaps most importantly of all, retaining self-respect and dignity in work environments.
Last semester this writer learned of a woman with three children who worked at minimum four shifts a week at a medical device plant in Parkmore, achieved an undergraduate degree, a masters, and who progressed onto a PHD.
Nothing is impossible provided a student organises his or her time effectively. The main problem of interference centres on landlord and employers’ unregulated greed and lack of respect for tenant and worker’s basic rights. These issues can affect even the most diligent and organised student and it is these issues – systemic and worsening- that our political and legal institutions need to resolve.
Another factor in the work study paradigm is evidence from American social psychologists that younger generations of students are more likely to lack resilience and experience mental health difficulties – a postmodern phenomenon.
Ultimately, achievement centres around personal responsibility. As soon as attitudes synthesise around what is wrong with the world and the myriad of failures possible due to systemic deficiencies, then personal responsibility becomes diluted, thus maximising the potential of underachievement.
Students must resolve to manage and overcome many obstacles. The state must work harder at minimizing those barriers to actualized potential.
Photo credit: Matt Biddulph via Flickr