The trouble with 'side hustles' at university

Chris Owen
Photograph: Evgenii Mainagashev/Alamy

They’re known as “side hustles”, but more often than not, they’re lifelines for students and young people. The side hustle is a way to make money from a hobby or skill and comes in many forms, from artwork to running a start-up. They can provide relief for those under financial stress – but they can also leave students thinly stretched.

Oxford PhD student Chelsea Haith was already spending the main portion of her day on her laptop, so she reasoned that taking up “choose-your-hours” work moderating messages for a dating app would fit well around her research. The customer service role complemented her experience giving pastoral support to postgraduate students.

“The faster you work, the more you get paid,” she says. “I would get up at five in the morning and moderate until nine, when Oxford’s libraries open. That’s when the American time zone kicked in and most people were active.” But working alongside a PhD took its toll. “People aren’t overwhelmingly nice to customer service staff. It had an impact on my academic work, I was exhausted. It doesn’t feel like you’re doing work towards your own life, but you have to earn money to eat and live.”

A recent report called “The Side Hustle Economy” by the University of Reading found that 34% of those aged 16 to 24 have a money-making sideline of some sort. But while they show enterprise, these gigs can be symptomatic of growing financial pressures. A national survey by Save the Student found that the student maintenance loan falls £267 short of the average student’s monthly living costs. Two thirds of students have a part-time job, while half of working students say their studies suffer as a result.

In reality, students’ passion projects often aren’t viable sources of income. Caitline Powell got into standup during her gap year and joined the comedy society at the University of York. A promoter saw her perform and gave her her first paid gig. “Gigging became my socialising time, as well as providing some all-important cash.” But, Powell says, it was impossible to commit enough to comedy for it to support her as a sideline to study. “It’s tough, when you do other jobs, to explain to managers why you can’t work late on certain evenings. Some have been very understanding but others will just put you on shift anyway, so you have to cancel gigs.”

Meanwhile, some students are taking more extreme measures to make ends meet. Four percent of respondents to the Save the Student survey said they pay their way with adult work (any job that involves nudity or erotica) – up from 2% in 2017. Eight percent said they made money through gambling.

Jake Butler, a money expert from Save the Student, says: “The doubling of students involved in adult and sex work over two years is very concerning. But it’s not all that unexpected, given the financial situation students are put in. Maintenance loans are means-tested, meaning that the government expects parents to plug the gap. But most parents have no idea and their children are forced to desperate measures just to continue their studies.”

Some students find themselves resorting to illegal means, like Daniel Rodgers*, who studies with the Open University. He took up selling drugs alongside a bar job when he realised his primary income didn’t cover his rent, bills and council tax. “Even though you’re doing a full-time degree, you can never count as a full-time student, so you don’t get the benefits that normal students do. There’s going to be a point where I find I’ve got two essays due, when I can’t manage shift work. So I buy two ounces of hash and shift little bits to whoever. It’s just on the side, to help pay bills or buy food.”

Eva Crossan Jory, vice president of welfare at the National Union of Students, says that marketisation in the higher education sector has made the situation worse. She suggests the answer is a National Education Service, that would “reframe” education as “a service accessible to all”.

“At the end of term, when the money runs out, it’s easy for them to turn to quick fixes such as loans or even gambling. Our research has shown that this just causes further stress and anxiety in the long run,” she says.

Related: Autumn of student activism begins over rising cost of university halls

Other students have called for cuts to university accommodation costs, which soak up the majority of students’ maintenance loans. Clementine Boucher, a student activist at Rent Strike, said: “Students have accumulated so much debt and their quality of life has deteriorated so much it was impossible not to notice […] They are really angry, frustrated and depressed by the situation.”

*Daniel Rogers is a pseudonym.