Studying and working at the same time — a tricky balancing act

Spanish students are some of the least likely to hold down jobs, says the OECD

Working vacation: A young lifeguard assists a beachgoer in Elche, Alicante.
Working vacation: A young lifeguard assists a beachgoer in Elche, Alicante.JOAQUÍN DE HARO

"It's tough, because ultimately I feel like I haven't had a full student life but also like I haven't had a full worker's life," says Fabiola Barranco, 23, who has just completed her fourth year of journalism studies at Madrid's Complutense University and has been working since she was a freshman student.

"I moved out because I wanted to, but also out of need: I have to work because I have no family support," she says. Fabiola is employed part-time at a theater, where she performs clerical duties on weekdays and all sorts of odd jobs on weekends, such as working as an usher. Things get a bit frantic when exams come around, she admits.

Combining work and study is always a complicated endeavor, but in Spain it seems particularly so. It is one of the developed countries with the lowest rate of young people who do both, ranking seventh from last according to the latest 2011 figures released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): only 4.7 percent of 15-to-29-year-old students also hold a job, compared with the OECD average of 11 percent. In the college student age range of 20 to 24 this figure rises to 6.8 percent, yet remains similarly far from the average of 13.4 percent.

Why does Spain post such low work-study figures? Gara Rojas, an analyst at the OECD, mentions the most obvious reason — the soaring jobless rate of 27 percent, which reaches 57 percent among young Spaniards — but also points at cultural issues.

In other countries it is more common to work while you study"

"It's not just because of the crisis; there appears to be a cultural factor at play as well. In other countries it is more common to work while you study. This may be because in other countries both the job market and the education system help you reconcile both activities," explains Rojas in an email.

Beyond classic options such as distance education, university programs certainly do not seem to favor reconciling the two very much. And now, with the adaptation of Spanish degree courses to European standards, greater class attendance and dedication are demanded.

"For instance, a full course for an economics diploma entails coursework of 30 to 40 hours a week, both in class and outside of it," says Julián Moral, an economics professor at Madrid's Autónoma University. Moral notes that students have the possibility of enrolling part-time, but that "does not reduce the total number of credits, which results in a longer study period, making it less attractive when the student is contemplating going on to graduate studies."

"Spain does not formally acknowledge — or at least it is not reflected in the University Student Statute (approved in 2010) — the figure of the part-time student in a clear, explicit manner, as some European countries do," adds Margarita Barañano, a professor of sociology at Complutense University and a former vice-student rector there.

"The part-time student's situation is more of a de facto than a legal reality," she says.

The part-time student’s situation is more of a de facto than a legal reality"

"I found more flexibility at work than at university," notes Barranco. "At work they let me organize my own schedule. At the journalism school I found professors who understand you and help you, but there are others who say that if you have to work, that's your problem."

But despite this young woman's positive work experience, things do not seem to be very easy for working students as a rule.

"In Spain, the last labor reform turned part-time contracts into something akin to chewing gum — companies can stretch or contract them \[through schedule changes, extra hours and so on\] in such a way that they become useless as a formula for reconciling work and study, unless work is restricted to weekends and holidays," insists Moral.

But, as usual, averages conceal a world of nuance. If you look at all university students regardless of age, instead of global youth numbers (as the OECD does), the outlook changes: the older the student, the greater the possibility that they will also be employed. And so, 11 percent of all Spanish university students work part-time, while 12 percent work full-time, according to a 2011 survey conducted by Valencia University professor Antonio Ariño. Besides this, another 23 percent do "odd jobs" from time to time, leaving them outside the OECD statistics.

"This activity does not provide financial independence to people who no longer depend on their families. This is just about covering personal expenses, for small daily needs or for trips, but it does not pay the rent or buy other consumer goods," explains Barañano.

Spaniards are the Europeans who wait the longest to move out of their parents’ house

It is worth remembering that Spaniards are the Europeans who wait the longest to move out of their parents' house: on average, they leave the nest at age 29, according to a 2012 study by the FAD foundation and Caja Madrid. This is partly because of job insecurity and lack of subsidies, but also due to cultural reasons that the FAD report described as "a family-focused context."

In any case, in between the part-time jobs and the odd jobs, not to mention the family support, many university students get ahead through what Barañano describes as "a mixed economy comprising income from various sources, in general representing reduced amounts, but which added up are enough to cover the costs of this educational period." Occasionally, these revenues are supplemented with study grants that are typically insufficient by themselves.

"On average they were only 2,300 euros per year for the academic year 2011/12, which is practically nothing in terms of contribution to the family economy," says Moral.

This combination of modest revenues from various sources has in all likelihood contributed to an increase in university graduates in recent decades, even if there are still serious inequality issues, since the poorest households are still underrepresented among college graduates.

"It is now likely to be harder to find a part-time job. Odd jobs will offer worse conditions, and families will no longer be able to offer the kind of support they used to," says Barañano. "If, on top of that, tuition fees go up \[an average of 16 percent, although in some Spanish regions it is as much as 50 percent\] and grants are reduced \[by introducing more stringent academic criteria to obtain and maintain them\], the results are easy to imagine, and the effects will be more severe among those with a more fragile financial situation, who are more dependent on the strings that could now be cut."

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