Part 4: Working Students

By Alison Taylor
In these posts so far, I’ve addressed issues I’m aware of from my personal life, teaching, and thoughts as a citizen. In this post, I turn to our current research[1] on working undergraduate students at UBC and U of T. I find it troubling that although we (instructors) engage with students in our classes, we often don’t know much about the circumstances of their lives. When I was the Graduate Advisor in EDST, I became aware of some of the complex home-work-study situations faced by many of our graduate students, usually when they had reached a crisis point.
Our Hard Working Students[2] research study, now ending its second year, explores the situations of working undergraduates at UBC over their programs. From our quantitative survey of undergraduates in 2018 and 2019,[3] we learned that over half of full-time students work part-time during the academic year. In 2019, the average number of hours they worked per week was 16 (equivalent to the time spent in class for many). Perhaps not surprisingly, those from lower SES backgrounds were more likely to be working. Most work off campus and a large proportion of students reported stress or anxiety (68%) and fatigue (58%) as problems at work in 2019.
I’m getting a sense of why fatigue and anxiety are prevalent as I read transcripts from students’ self-interviews as they traveled to and from work and classes in winter/spring of 2019. Many students are engaged in both paid and unpaid work, as well as student clubs and organizations, on top of their four to six-course load. The ease with which students manage their workload varies by individual circumstances. We know that balancing school and work is particularly anxiety provoking, for example, for those students who must pay their rent, food, tuition, and other living costs without support from families. Many of these students feel this part of their life is invisible to the university.
As the COVID-19 lockdown began, we emailed our participants to see how it’s impacting their lives. So far, we’ve heard from 13 students[4] and hope to hear from others over the summer. Responses suggest that most students’ plans have been seriously disrupted by the pandemic (only two of thirteen are continuing to work as usual). A couple are still working, but express concerns about safety at work since they’re in contact with customers or other workers. Plans for Study Abroad, internships, or cooperative education experiences are cancelled or on hold. Job offers are being rescinded and students are being forced to be even more flexible and adaptable than usual. Most students have decided to take summer courses in the event they can’t find work. Beyond work changes, some international students and out-of-province students have moved back home with parents.
What is to be done? In response to the immediate COVID-19 situation, the federal government has responded with the Canada Emergency Student Benefit program, intended to offer financial assistance to students who can’t find work over the summer, and the Canada Student Service Grant program, to provide some support students who choose to volunteer in the fight against COVID-19. Special support is to be provided also for Indigenous students. In addition, the government is involved in summer job creation activities. However, like responses to the elderly and those living in poverty, the pandemic shines a light on broader issues in the higher education system.
First, concerns the globalization of higher education. In addition to international student recruitment, higher education, now more than ever, encourages student mobility and internationalization initiatives based on global knowledge networks.[5] For example, our study suggests that the financial pressures on international students are significant because of their much higher tuition costs and lack of job hunting networks. The number of domestic students negatively affected by the pandemic in terms of international opportunities is striking too. More generally, questions around who can access ‘extra-credential’ opportunities and what student supports are available will continue to be topics for discussion.
Second, is the problematic nature of human capital discourse in higher education. Students are acutely aware of labour market returns on different degrees, and the need to be employable upon graduation. Many students now feel pressured to not only get a degree, but also to get relevant work experience, to demonstrate leadership in student clubs, and to include career-relevant volunteer work on their cv’s by the time they graduate. However, as the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates, individual employability not only involves personal attributes and competencies, but also factors less within students’ control, including the rules and institutions that govern local, national, and international labour markets (e.g. employment standards, regulation of occupations, etc.), economic changes (e.g., shifts in demand), as well as personal circumstances (e.g. child or elder care responsibilities).[6] Employability therefore needs to be located in a dialogue between multiple stakeholders, including providers, learners and communities as well as business and government.[7]
Third, and related to a broader view of employability, is the importance of understanding working students’ lives. In Canadian society overall, COVID-19 has increased our awareness of the vastly different circumstances of different workers, where some are able to “weather the storm” while others are being dashed on the rocks. Students also face very different situations, and universities therefore need to be more attentive to the most vulnerable students. This includes considering who is unable to enroll in the (for financial reasons), who is barely subsisting once in programs, and who is dropping out for reasons that are largely non-academic. Although the proportion of university students who work has steadily increased over time, universities have not always responded.
To cite the conclusion to our report:
The typical undergraduate student continues to be seen by the university as a non-working student, despite evidence to the contrary. Such a student is seen as devoting 100 percent of their time and energy to their studies, prioritizing learning in the classroom, demonstrating concern about achieving high grades, and participating in extra-curricular activities on campus to become well rounded.
In contrast, our study results confirm the image of the working student as a juggler, trying to keep all the balls in the air – paid and unpaid work, attending class and studying – while trying to preserve a few precious moments for self-care, family, and friends.
Universities must recognize that many students are not working by choice, and that students working in precarious conditions may require accommodations and additional supports.
[1] The research team includes Hongxia Shan as well as colleagues in Ontario. See our blogsite:
[2] See our blogsite:
[3] See our report of survey findings:
[4] See a sampling of quotes on our blogsite:
[5] See article by Altbach & de Wit in University World News on April 4, 2020:
[6] See article about employability by McQuaid, R.W. and Lindsay, C. (2005), The concept of employability, Urban Studies, 42, 2, 197-219.
[7] See article about employability by McGrath, S. (2009), What is employability? Learning to support employability project paper, 1, 15

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