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.
Compact teaching timetables, where lectures and seminars are scheduled over two or three days rather than dotted throughout the week, are being introduced by a number of institutions. The move makes it easier for the growing number of undergraduates who have to take on part-time jobs to make ends meet. More than half of students now work alongside their studies, up from 45% in 2022 and 34% in 2021.
With inadequate maintenance loans, which barely cover accommodation costs, and cash-strapped families struggling to afford parental contributions, young people starting degrees in the autumn face financial uncertainty. Two-thirds of freshers expect to get a part-time job to stay afloat, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). Students describe having to skip meals, work extra shifts or rely on credit cards to survive.
De Montfort University, in Leicester, tested compact timetables last year in half of its courses and is introducing them across the board this autumn. Instead of studying four modules at a time, with about two hours’ teaching a week on each, undergraduates study one module for seven weeks.
“The change allows for more compact timetables and this sits round students’ lives better,” said vice-chancellor Prof Katie Normington. “A lot of students are working and have other responsibilities, and it makes organisation of that easier. We had great feedback last year from students. Internal surveys show that those on the block-teaching timetable were about 10% happier than those not doing it.”
The policy also benefits commuter students, who choose to live at home or cannot afford to move away because of rising rents and living costs. “Students with a Leicester or Leicestershire postcode rose from 42 to 47% last year,” said Prof Normington. “If they are travelling in to campus, it is easier and cheaper to do that a couple of times a week rather than four or five times for an hour here and there.”
Two to three-day timetables are also a feature of student life at Sunderland, Anglia Ruskin universities’ London campuses and the University of Law, with 16 campuses around England. At Coventry University’s campuses in Dagenham and Greenwich, students are taught over two-and-a-half days a week.
“The model is entirely down to the cost of living issue,” said John Dishman, pro-vice-chancellor and CEO of CU Group. “Barking and Dagenham is the poorest borough of London. People rely on having part-time work and their income is basically maintenance loan and part-time work. We have seen it more and more over the last two years or so. People just will not have access to courses unless it is built alongside their ability to work. Some people are working nearly five days a week and studying with us the rest of the time. It’s not so much a part-time job as a full-time one. Their dedication is amazing. We have our graduation ceremony every year at the O2 and it’s just phenomenal the amount of work people put in to get there.”
Similarly at the Coventry and Scarborough campuses, lectures and seminars are held either five mornings or five afternoons a week, as part of its commitment to “life-shaped learning”. Roehampton University’s new timetables also allow students to plan ahead making it easier to fit in paid work. From this autumn, teaching on the first year of most of its undergraduate degree courses will be scheduled on no more than three days a week to help students “combine study with work, caring and other commitments”.
Cost of living worries ranked as a top concern in this year’s student experience survey, commissioned by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).
More than three-quarters of the 10,000 respondents said that it had affected their studies and it was cited as a major factor in considerations of dropping out.
“The increase in the proportion of students who feel compelled to do so many hours of paid employment that their studies may suffer is a particularly acute challenge,” said Nick Hillman, HEPI director. “Those in power should urgently look afresh at the maintenance support on offer to undergraduates. The universities minister said recently that a fee rise was ‘just not going to happen’ because families were already facing cost pressures. But it is not the fees that are the problem to students in relation to cost of living. What affects them is rising rent and the prices in the supermarket and if ministers really cared about that, they’d be raising maintenance loans.”
Keir Stamer said last week that he would not have been able to afford to go to university now, describing how he survived his time at Leeds University by working, using maintenance grants and “carefully calculating rent, bills and food”.
Maintenance grants for the poorest students were abolished by the Conservatives in 2015. Labour has yet to announce changes to student finance but the leader’s comments suggest packages to help students are under discussion.