Self-employment in the UK is at the highest level since records began; 15% of the total workforce is currently self-employed, compared to 13% in 2008 and 8.7% in 1975. According to The Office for National Statistics the rise is down to fewer people leaving self-employment than in the past.
As technology makes freelancing more viable for many, this trend is set to continue. Academics at London Business School’s Global Leadership Summit recently said 50% of the workforce will work remotely by 2020.
Working from home is just one of the benefits of freelancing. You’re also your own boss, in charge of your own time and get to work on projects you find really interesting; all of which would appeal greatly to the average university student.
The benefits of freelancing at university
Freelancing as a student is a great way to get direct experience in the industry you are interested in and build up an impressive portfolio of work. Shoshana Deutschkron, Senior Director of Communications at Upwork, gave us an example: “One student freelancer on Upwork, Albert Fernandez, was studying for a part-time degree in Computer Science and simultaneously freelancing as a web developer on Upwork. His work is relevant to his degree, and the flexibility that freelancing affords allows him to choose when he works in order to accommodate his study schedule.”
Read about our work for Upwork: The 2015 Millennial Majority Workforce
This experience with industry does more than just build up your portfolio though, as Xenios Thrasyvoulou, founder and CEO of PeoplePerHour explained: “It gives you a head start in the world of work with practical hands on experience of the working world. It also helps instil the importance of project deadlines. Of course on a practical note the extra income can also be helpful for struggling students.”
It also gives students real life experience of working with a client, which is a completely different experience to working with a boss. Anna Kealey is the Creative Opportunities Coordinator at the University of the Arts London and given the creative nature of many of the courses at UAL, freelancing is a sensible route for many of its students. She told us: “Freelance is an excellent opportunity to apply all you are learning at university to a real-world situation by working on a live brief. Students gain insight into what it’s like to work for a client and this can impact their student projects going forward.”
There is also the practical aspect to consider, as pointed out by Jay Gujral, the Director & Co-Founder of Gradlancer, a freelance site specifically set up for university students: “Freelancing is a great alternative to part-time jobs for students because it offers flexibility that a part-time job ultimately cannot offer.”
The negatives of freelancing at university
Of course, being a student freelance isn’t always a dreamy wonderland of awesome projects, understanding clients and working at home in your PJs. Not 100% of the time anyway!
Time management is the main challenge facing freelance students. “As long as you know when you have to study and when you have time to work, then that’ll be the main challenge a student will need to overcome,” explains Jay.
Anna points out that in the creative industry, which so many of her students are in, major edits are often requested which can make time management a tricky issue: “Often with freelance work, the projects take longer to complete than originally anticipated. This is especially true when the client has a number of major edits towards the end of the project. Students need to be careful to take this into consideration when managing their time. In a worst case scenario, a freelance project can drag on and impact on the students’ important school projects or exams.”
The answer? Xenios says: “Planning is key. Don’t take on freelancing projects around key exam times, be realistic about what you’ll be able to achieve for clients if you have major coursework deadlines looming. It’s all about careful planning.”
How university can support students
Universities put a lot of time and work into helping their students secure work placements and jobs after they have graduated. But what about discussing less traditional options, such as freelancing?
Shoshana told us: “A recent study revealed that students would like more university support when it comes to understanding freelance and self-employment opportunities. In fact, less than one-fifth of students said they had been made aware of self-employment and freelancing during their studies – but even this small group was left wanting more information.”
Jay thinks a good place to start would be actually teaching students about what freelancing is and what it involves: “A majority of students in the UK wouldn’t have even heard of freelancing and would be hesitant to commit to work they don’t really understand. All it is, is working for yourself, whilst studying.” As he points out, it would benefit the students and universities, even if the student went onto traditional employment as a graduate: “If there was a greater push from universities to make students even more independent than they already are, it would help them develop before reaching the graduate workplace!”
As well as teaching them what freelancing actually is, Xenios suggests: “Educating students on the tax implications, filling in self-assessments etc. would be a good start. As well as help with the basics of marketing and setting up websites would go a long way.”
Shoshana adds: “The conventional route to employment is not for everyone; and at the same time, young professionals are drawn to a more flexible lifestyle that gives them more control over their careers. In addition to informing students about graduate schemes and internships, more work is needed to highlight what self-employment opportunities are available.”
Case Study: University of the Arts London
As discussed above, freelancing is a popular option for students at The University of the Arts London due to its creative focus. We asked Anna what they do to support students who want to freelance.
She told us: “All of our employability workshops and professional development sessions incorporate advice and resources for students who are looking to freelance, either during their studies or for the duration of their career. These events include advice on their career direction, as well as practical advice like cover letters, CVs and portfolio platforms to use to attract clients, like The Dots, YunoJuno or Squarespace.”
As well as that, the Careers and Employability department has an in-house temping agency for the university: “A number of these temping jobs include freelance projects such as photography or graphic design to help students build their portfolio while being paid properly. Wages at Arts Temps start at £9.15 per hour, and are often above £11 per hour for freelance roles.”
Freelancing is a great way for students to earn some extra money and gain real industry experience. As self-employment rates continue to rise, many students may choose to continue freelancing as post-graduates, so it makes sense for universities to help them be the best they can.
As Xenios puts it: “Self-employment is here to stay in the UK, many students may well end up being self-employed from day one. Universities should embrace the change and help them practically for the future.”