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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Oxford University and the alienation of working students

Bethan Draycott discusses the impact of the disparity between working and non-working students at Oxford University.

The cliché goes that working in customer service will teach you a lot about people. The key thing I’ve noticed is that a few lines in the sand will define who you are and who you can be. At Oxford University, this set of lines is everything. Not just that, but the bar of privilege is so highly raised here that being ‘average’, or even above average, seems to translate into disadvantage.

It’s hardly original to accuse Oxford of being disproportionately tailored to the most privileged in our society – private school students, white students, cishet students. That is pretty much the first thing people will rush to tell you when you apply here. In recent years, Oxford has theoretically diversified its intake (whether sufficiently or not is pretty controversial): but is the system that’s in place actually equipped to support this apparently changing demographic of students?

One of the many, and potentially more subtle, inequalities in privilege we encounter here is the divide between those students who have to maintain jobs to support themselves financially, either during term time or in the holidays, and those who don’t (a divide which admittedly sounds relatively banal compared to the reputation of -isms and -phobias that Oxford already boasts, but is real nonetheless).

Students working jobs is not something out of the ordinary anywhere else, and most working- and middle-class students must take on a part-time job at some point. As a bottom line, having a job as a student should not be a problem, and is much less of a problem at most other universities that do not adhere to our term structure. So why is it so hard to handle here?

The University website states that no student may exceed 20 hours of paid work per week. We are also told that a minimum of 40 hours of our week must be dedicated to academic study. On top of this, we are  encouraged to take on extracurricular activities, internships, and leadership roles within our colleges, as well as attending formal events and of course our actual teaching hours, which for me amounted to 16 hours per week in first year.

Let’s be utopian for a moment and suppose that we survive all of this and somehow also manage to eat three meals a day and sleep eight hours a night. Even if this was sustainable, the national minimum wage for 18-20 year olds is £6.56 per hour. So working for this at maximum capacity during term time, according to University rules, you could earn £131.20 per week. According to the University website, living costs at Oxford vary between £14,100 and £20,520 for 12 months, so between £271.15 and £394.62 weekly on average. Thus, the maximum amount of working hours permitted would not be financially viable for a student who has to support themselves on a minimum wage job. 

In my experience, owing to the structure of the intense eight-week Oxford terms, students that need to make money have two options: either to find a late-night job in something like a nightclub and accept that they will never sleep, watching from one side of the bar while the rest of their cohort enjoy themselves on the other side, or to work extra time in the holidays. Having done both, I would suggest that neither is going to give you a great relationship with your degree, or with anything else for that matter. There is also an underestimated disconnect between university life (and the social expectations that come with that), and the atmosphere and demands of the working world.  Working a job during university, it’s easy to become dissociated from both: always slightly excluded from the freedoms of non-working students, but never able to fully relate to the lives of coworkers. A sticky, vodka-soaked bar becomes symbolic of a line we always feel like we’re on the wrong side of. 

For a student obligated to earn that cannot during term time, the amount they have to work during the holidays to compensate for not earning for eight weeks at a time (supposing that, according to the National Minimum Wage and Oxford’s 20 hours a week policy, they have lost at least £1049.60 per term) inevitably amounts to burnout. They also have less time to pursue internships and unpaid opportunities for their CV, less time to socialise, and less time to do pre-reading or revision for their degree. Not to mention the feeling of isolation, scrolling through festival posts and holiday pictures in between shifts, knowing that if you work overtime you might almost get out of overdraft by the time term begins. This is before even acknowledging that working full-time in most manual labour or so-called ‘low skilled’ jobs requires an enormous amount of physical exertion that can lead to long-term health issues that are constantly undermined by those who have not experienced them. Being unable to evenly distribute manual work and academic study at Oxford is fundamentally incompatible with functioning mental and physical health. 

Thus, the structure of the term means that even outside of Oxford term time, working students are placed at a disadvantage when they do return to read for their subjects, already behind academically and burnt out during a period when they are expected to rest and revise. 

So, as much as Oxford can claim inclusivity by extending and diversifying their intake, what good is half-hearted representation if you cannot take care of these students or allow them to take care of themselves? If you change the type of students at the University, but maintain the system of education that was devised specifically for the most privileged in society, all you are doing is propagating these disadvantages in an altered setting.

This also doesn’t just apply to those from traditional working-class backgrounds. Regardless of their household income, many students simply cannot rely on their families for financial help. Considering that student loans are based on the parents’ earnings, without consideration of actual disposable income, even the students eligible only for minimum student loan may not have access to financial support from their families. Studies have also shown that financial manipulation is a primary mode of control for an abusive parent. Not just that, but regardless of the student loan someone is entitled to, the anxiety surrounding paying it off is, for many, enough to force them to find extra money. Fundamentally, there are so many reasons why a student may choose to supplement their finances with a job which can’t always be inferred. By disfiguring this element of choice, Oxford is not just excluding the disadvantaged, but solely catering for the extremes of privilege. Change is required for the structure of teaching to be ever truly accessible. 

Something we also commonly hear is that Oxford students shouldn’t have to work during term-time because they can get hardship funding from their college. While there are a few options available (some more useful than others), this doesn’t acknowledge some of the glaring holes in Oxford welfare that might make students unwilling to approach them, given that pursuing hardship grants usually requires a certain level of personal disclosure that many would not be comfortable with, given the staff in question. Many students also do not feel that they qualify for ‘hardship’ for the reasons stated above. For many, working is a way of securing a necessary financial independence, something which should not be held from us as autonomous adults. Furthermore, hardship funds are often offered in the form of loans which must be paid back the following term, an assumption being made that the student will be able to return home and find a way to pay it back. This kind of blanket approach to funding is just another aspect of Oxford’s frankly ignorant attitude towards less advantaged students. 

The purpose of this article is not only to help students who can relate feel less alone, and not at all out of bitterness towards those who can’t, but to insist that we review Oxford’s traditional system of teaching and expectations of students. Oxford must either create allowances for those students who have to work, rather than punishing them, or restructure learning to be more flexible. It must also provide specialised welfare and more financial support. Changing the student intake doesn’t actually fix the problem; we are being invited into a system that was not made for us. And to those who tell us that being within Oxford is an opportunity to exploit the system positively, consider that it becomes impossible to take advantage of an institution when you barely have time in a day to breathe. Many people will rush to pat you on the head and say that it will be worth it, because in the long term you will gain opportunities as a member of  Oxford’s prestigious alumni, but if that means years of burnout, alienation, and long-term issues for some and not others, then that can never equate to accessibility or equality.

Image Credit: Billy Wilson / CC BY-NC 2.0

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