Opinion: Cambridge should allow students to undertake paid jobs during term-time

Working 9 to 5 (but only outside term-time)

Oxford and Cambridge are far from the typical UK university experience for a multitude of reasons. One of these is that students are told that they should not undertake paid employment during term-time.

Of course, many find loopholes in this system – they tutor online, or deliver food with Just Eat or Deliveroo, jobs which can be flexible around your own availability. But should we be allowed to undertake official paid work in sectors popular amongst students such as retail, service and cleaning?

Personally, I’ve worked in almost every holiday I’ve had so far. During the Christmas period I work as seasonal staff in Boots, and this Easter I’ve been lucky enough to get my sixth form job (working in a food shop) back.  Working has been an important part of my university experience, despite not being allowed to work in term-time. At the moment I’m uncertain about whether I will be allowed to keep working next term; the official guidance hasn’t changed and the University still ‘takes the view that our students shouldn’t undertake paid employment during term-time.’ But how many students don’t get the choice – how many are working (without pay) as carers for family members, or in key worker jobs like mine?

Regardless of the current situation, Cambridge’s blanket judgement against contracted employment during term-time is an extreme measure. According to the University, they expect students not to work in favour of an ‘appropriate work-life balance’, with the exception of college employment such as working at the bar or at open days, and that there is a wide range of financial support in place to help students manage the costs of living and studying.

Working (especially in sectors like retail and service) is an incredibly valuable experience. At risk of sounding like a UCAS personal statement, I genuinely believe the jobs I’ve had have helped me learn to relate to and deal with all sorts of people.

Of the general Cambridge demographic, how many do you think have worked in shops or waited tables or done other jobs with exposure to the general public and the wider world? The positions Cambridge graduates are likely to progress into are mostly managerial or other leader-type jobs some would say are out of touch with the general public. I’m not advocating any kind of ‘tourist’  approach, but having experience in minimum-wage service jobs definitely makes people respect others in these positions. Who knows, it might help you appreciate the cashiers at Mainsbury’s in a new way!

Photo credit: Betari Ratih

I’m not going to pretend this isn’t also a class issue. The idea of living 100% out of a loan (even one that’s administered like a tax)-money that I haven’t earned – does not sit well with me at all. I’m sure I’m not the only one culturally reared to think like this. Is this the definition of working class? An instinctual distaste for living on money we haven’t earned? But the ‘squeezed middle’ also needs to be taken into consideration here. What do you do, when you don’t qualify for much of a maintenance loan or college/university support, yet your family either cannot or will not float you? Typically, you’d get a part-time job. Here, we’re not allowed.

For some, not being allowed to work during term-time has never even crossed their minds.

The time commitments of a contracted job are a much-touted reason why we are not permitted to work. Whilst understandable, this seems very hypocritical in the light of other permitted student activities such as rowing, which can take up around 15 hours a week depending on the boat (and even larger swathes of time for blues boats), and theatre, which is also very time intensive. It’s true that sporting and other societies are social activities that enrich our time as students – but we ought to consider that a part-time job might have similar benefits? Both allow us to interact with more than just those on our course or on our staircase and get some time away from our degree. I’m obviously not saying ‘don’t row, get a job’, but if we’re allowed to commit this sort of time to rowing, surely we should be allowed to do the same for a job?

Ironically, there is something very fair about none of us being allowed to work. It means we are all (theoretically) working the same amount. If we were suddenly just given permission to work, the reality is that some of us would feel more pressure to work than others: the above ‘squeezed middle’ and people who would be expected to send their family money for example. This means some of us would be spending significantly more time than others working a job due to financial pressure, which would result in less time to spend on our academic studies. Should the University allow us to work, thorough systems would need to be put in place to stop people falling through the gaps and feeling forced to work at the expense of their academic work. On top of this, some tripos’ have far fewer contact hours than others – Mathmos might have much less time available for work than Englings.

These are both very valid concerns. And yet, other universities allow students to work, so it is clearly possible. Is it possible Oxbridge just wants to set themselves apart from other universities, or that they would rather throw money at a problem instead of changing the way things are done? Being permitted to work a maximum number of hours per week would go a long way towards counteracting some of these potential problems.

Another argument I’ve heard against students being allowed to work is that it would somehow cause the wider University and college financial support available to decrease. Frankly, I think this is very unlikely as I don’t see how the University would justify actively withdrawing financial support to students, but I understand this point of view – that colleges might suggest you get a part time job rather than offering support where necessary. There is also a lot of disparity in the work provided by college.

If Cambridge were to allow students to work, it would have to continue current financial support available, and make sure no students’ academic work was sacrificed. I believe we should be allowed to have jobs whilst studying, but never pressured to do so.

The University has been contacted for comment.

Cover photo: Fickr, Foshie