I have to admit that this title is clickbait. In reality personal experiences can vary absolutely massively, and it would be somewhat silly to generalize. Some people find university relatively easy in comparison with working, and it isn’t the point of this article to denigrate that.
What spurred me to write this was being sick of being lectured by people from the older generation (and sometimes, too, by recent grads) about how easy university is compared with working. I think there are a few factors that play into this: the first, and biggest, is the “rose-tinted glasses” effect. The second is a lack of awareness of how much job requirements and financial situations for university students have changed since e.g. the 70s. The third is a certain obliviousness to the housing crisis facing university students in the UK.
I should disclose, to make clear where I’m coming from, that I have been financially independent for the last five years and have done a variety of types of work (youth work, manual labour, tutoring, admin etc), some paid, some voluntary, some work experience, both in term time and in the breaks. None of this ever seemed to compare to the stress of studying, and since finishing finals, I’ve started to ask myself the question “why?”.
- There are no fixed hours
Being a student means there is often no clear boundary between “work” time and “personal” time. Particularly in humanities degrees, there is always more you could be reading, more you could be learning, more work you could be putting into your languages and so on. Classes and tutorials can be rearranged at extremely short notice, deadlines are frequent and short. The effect of this is to make it very difficult as a student to commit to a 9-5 or similar schedule, especially if you try to get involved in societies or volunteering. There is an expectation that you can always be somewhat flexible, which is true to an extent – but can make the experience often very stressful.
2. You spend most of your time alone
This is more true of humanities and arts students than science students, but it is a major factor in creating stress among students. Spending hours in the library reading and writing is doable, but doing it 5/6 days a week can have a strange effect on the mind, and staying engaged for that length of time can sometimes be a struggle. There is very little collaborative work in a humanities degree. This also creates a pressure with respect to assessment: what is being assessed is always work done by you, alone.
3. You are still learning how to look after yourself
Few students come to university knowing how to look after themselves fully. Although university can be useful as a transition period, learning to cook for yourself, do your own laundry, and handle bills, landlords and the other pressures of adult life is a steep learning curve, which I find that many older people have forgotten about. If you have no parents who can give good advice about these matters, the stress is just compounded, which creates additional stress for students from more vulnerable backgrounds.
4. Your disposable income is very low
I have mentioned in another article on this blog that the average rental price for a room in Oxford is about £5,500-£6,500 per annum. This is about 3/4 of the maximum government maintenance loan available to students starting in 2017. Although Oxford university offers generous grants, this is not the case at all universities. As the price of student accommodation goes up and up (with “luxury” student houses aimed at international students and wealthy domestic students proliferating), making ends meet is likely to keep getting harder and harder for students. Cries of “just get a job” can also be heard, but it should be remembered that the death of weekend/Saturday jobs and spread of zero-hour contracts makes it very difficult for students to get work with hours that can be reasonably fitted around a degree.
5. Your future hangs (or seems to) on the result
Although losing a job causes immense stress, generally people do not get another shot at getting a different degree. As more and more recruiters automatically cut off students who do not get at least a 2.i, the pressure to do well is immense, especially for students who want to go into more competitive industries. University is also a crucial time for securing internships, insight days, work experience, and so on, something which in itself has become more difficult due to the spread of unpaid internships.