Credit: Dorota Dziki

FOMO as a working student

By Molly Comer

The Glasgow Guardian examines the classist conditions influencing students’ social life at university.

Staying out until the sun comes up, living with a perpetual hangover and most importantly, life without parents – all part of a university experience that both new and returning students seek to achieve. With the SNP famously scrapping tuition fees for Scottish students in 2008, higher education and by extension the university experience appeared more attainable to lower-income students. As is well-documented in our social and cultural landscape however, the true ‘university experience’ often exists outside of a degree programme – but unlike Scottish tuition fees, this one is not free. 

Simply put, university is expensive. Between accommodation, travel fees, food, clothes, and going out, not to mention the mandatory reading materials for many courses, the university price tag quickly racks up. The University of Glasgow estimated it might cost a student between £11,500-15,300 per year to live and study in the city. In my own experience, despite living at home, working part-time and being a student loan recipient, I find the financial burdens of university extremely difficult to manage. Although I found I am in the minority of students who have a part-time job, I am certainly not alone. 

Third-year Film and Television Studies student Eilidh told The Glasgow Guardian that she is not “really having a full university experience”, often missing out on academic and social events because of part-time work. The fear of missing out, or FOMO, is a real phenomenon and not one that many wish to experience. For working students, however, it is an all-too-common reality. A 2019 study by Student Beans discovered that 36% of students had a part-time job while studying at university. The question remains as to what effect this has had on their university experience.

Eilidh explained that while she could afford to attend university without her job, as she doesn’t pay tuition fees and lives at home, she would be missing out on the overall university experience due to not being able to afford the social aspect of university. Furthermore, we both share in our thoughts that campus life is deeply impacted for students who live at home. After a long day of studying and an hour-long commute, the thought of travelling back for last-minute casual drinks is exhausting. However, moving closer to university is not always an accessible option.

Speaking personally, attending university outside of Scotland, or even outside of Glasgow, wasn’t feasible. I could not afford the tuition fees of any other universities, and moving out of my home was also financially unrealistic. Theoretically, any Scottish universities were free for me to attend, but as a working-class student, my options slimmed fast. This left me with a limited pool of Glasgow-based universities, and only the University of Glasgow offered the course I wished to study. Eilidh elaborated that she considered moving outside of Glasgow but not out of the country, as “it would not have been financially possible to pay tuition fees and the cost of moving out”.

However, this shared experience of Eilidh and I isn’t shared by all. Erin, a second-year English Literature and Sociology student, shared with The Glasgow Guardian that, despite her part-time job, she still is able to engage in university staples and often goes out, with her job improving her university experience because she has “more money to enjoy it”.

Setting aside the social impact, working part-time whilst studying may also affect students academically. In fact, at two of the top UK universities, Oxford and Cambridge, students are “strongly advised” or “expected” not to work alongside their studies, even though Oxford University calculates the living costs of students to be somewhere between £10-15,000 for nine months study, and that does not factor tuition fees into the equation. This is unthinkable for many students from lower-income backgrounds and is a considerable barrier holding them back from higher education at top universities. Essentially, it is financially impossible. UCAS statistics have also shown that students from more privileged backgrounds are ten times more likely to get into a top university than those from lower-income households. In addition to this, both Eilidh and Erin, who consider themselves middle-class, shared that they did not consider attending university outside of Scotland due to the free tuition fees available.

The consensus amongst students, and something I find myself, is that it is the social aspect of university life that is most affected by working part-time whilst studying. I find I can manage academia and my job with a strict schedule, balanced routine, and the good fortune to have an employer who understands that university is my priority. Still, coffee with a friend or a last-minute society meeting is less likely to score me a sympathetic shift swap.

So, is the university experience that is sold to us inherently classist? In my experience and that of others in a similar position, yes. While higher education is becoming more accessible to those from lower-income backgrounds, or even those who consider themselves middle-class, the financial cost of the broader experience, such as new friends, flatmate drama, and drinking culture, remains challenging.

Having a social life while working and studying is difficult, but not impossible. Certain nights out, especially that of the spontaneous category, are a non-starter. If I haven’t asked for time off at least one month in advance, I won’t get it. But as many of us know, those nights often make for the best memories.


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