Money worries hinder progress

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Sue Jones reports on a survey that shows pressure on students to earn cash is jeopardising their academic success

ONE in three college students works at least 15 hours a week in jobs ranging from shop assistant to burger-bar attendant, but few understand their employment rights and responsibilities, says a research report.

Students are keen to earn cash but want help from colleges and schools to understand the law, says the study, which shows that many are working excessively long hours.

Despite low pay, most enjoy their jobs, but some have also experienced bullying, pressure to be dishonest and racism, the education charity Examaid has found.

Its survey of 1,500 full-time students revealed that almost two-thirds (59 per cent) work more than 10 hours a week; 30 per cent work more than 15 hours a week; and one in 10 works in excess of 20 hours.

The minimum wage is pound;3.60 an hour at age 18, but many employers pay less to workers younger than 18. More than half earned less than pound;4 an hour, and 30 per cent under pound;3.50. One-third of youngsters were working in shops, with another third waiting on tables or doing kitchen and bar work.

Many students viewed their jobs very positively, saying they enjoyed the chance to meet new people and make friends, and believe they are developing skills, even if jobs did not relate to their career plans. The majority said they had been made to feel welcome in the workforce .

Most students said they had a variety of financial reasons for employment.

Two-thirds said they wanted a social life and more than one-fifth said they were saving for later education. More than half cited economic necessity, saying they had "no other source of income" or they were "expected to contribute to the family budget".

The Association of Colleges and National Union of Students say the pound;30-40-a-week education maintenance being phased in nationally will help alleviate some of the poverty, but not the worst. The most disturbing evidence in the survey was that 6 per cent of students said they were working to support dependants.

Many respondents said they enjoyed their work but some reported negative experiences. One in five reported being made to do things that regular staff were not willing to do, and one in 12 said they had been bullied. One in 20 had experienced racism, and a similar number were "made to do something dishonest". A small minority said they had been sexually harassed or not accepted because of their sexuality, or had been put through a "painful or embarrassing initiation".

The survey suggests that many students are confused about some aspects of their rights and responsibilities at work and wanted more information; 80 per cent wanted their school or college to provide it.

The study tested students' knowledge of their rights at work. The majority could answer most of the questions, but a significant number were often wrong or unsure. For example, almost one-third were not confident that they had to be given a reason if sacked. The same proportion accepted the hours they were told to work.

A substantial minority were also confused about the minimum wage for their age group, and about income tax, pensions and whether their employer could expect them to supply their own equipment or pay for equipment they damaged.

Researchers warn that some students could get into difficulty by overestimating their rights. Many mistakenly believe that the employer has to provide a special place to take breaks, and a few believed they were entitled to free transport to work and compensation if their property was lost or damaged.

The survey also revealed some gender differences. Although no job category was confined entirely to boys or girls, females were more likely to be involved in hairdressing, childcare and cleaning, while males are more often found labouring, decorating or in garages. Girls also earned less than boys.

Boys were found to be less likely to tick the "not sure" box, even when they were wrong. But girls more often underestimated their responsibilities at work. Boys were more often expected to contribute to the family income, although it was also found that they spend their cash faster - usually on social life, cars or sport. Girls are more likely to save for the future.

Male students said they wanted information about employment to be supplied by their school or college, while girls were found to favour helplines.

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