Full-time student, part-time worker? Know your employment rights

From wages to tax to rules for international students, we explain the employment rights that will make your part-time job a beneficial and hassle-free experience.

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Make sure you know your employment rights and what practicalities you need to deal with.

Taking on a part-time job while studying at university can boost your bank balance and your skills in the workplace. But to get the most out of the experience (and keep the taxman or taxwoman or taxperson happy), make sure you know your employment rights and what practicalities you need to deal with.

  • Your experience of finding and carrying out part-time work will likely be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. If you’re unsure of how the job hunting process might be different or are looking for alternative ways to grow your CV, take a look at our advice here.

Part-time workers have full-time rights

Students who work part-time are legally entitled to be treated the same as comparable full-time workers; that is, workers on the same type of contract with the same employer. This is a right you enjoy from day one of your employment. These cover aspects such as pay, benefits, holidays and promotion opportunities (although pay, benefits and similar can be pro rata, ie proportionate to the number of hours you work).

What's the national minimum wage for students?

The minimum you can be paid (national minimum wage) is the same for students as for anyone else. These national minimum wage rates will apply until April 2021, when they are due to change. Currently they are:

  • for workers aged 25 and over – £8.72 per hour (this is the National Living Wage)
  • for workers aged 21 to 24 – £8.20 per hour
  • for workers aged 18 to 20 – £6.45 per hour
  • for workers aged under 18 – £4.55 per hour.

From April 2021, the national minimum wage will increase for all age groups. In addition, the National Living Wage will also apply to workers from the age of 23 upwards. The April 2021 national minimum wage rates are:

  • for workers aged 23 and over – £8.91 per hour (this is the National Living Wage)
  • for workers aged 21 to 22 – £8.36 per hour
  • for workers aged 18 to 20 – £6.56 per hour
  • for workers aged under 18 – £4.62 per hour.

The working time regulations

As a part-time worker you are entitled to:

  • an interrupted in-work rest break of at least 20 minutes if the working day is longer than six hours (although whether this rest break is paid depends on your employment contract)
  • 11 hours’ rest between working days (between when your shift finishes and when a new one starts)
  • either an uninterrupted 24 hours without work each week or 48 hours per fortnight
  • a limit of an average 48-hour working week (although you can agree with your employer to work longer hours – this agreement must be in writing and signed by you)
  • a minimum of 5.6 weeks’ paid holiday per year pro rata – so 5.6 times your weekly working hours.

How much can students earn before paying tax?

University students are not exempt from tax; they pay tax and national insurance just as other workers do, even on temp jobs. You will need to pay income tax if you earn more than £1,042 a month on average and national insurance if you earn more than £183 a week. As a UK national, if you work abroad you will also need to pay income tax and, if you are working for a UK company, national insurance.

You won’t pay tax on all of your earnings; just the amount over your personal tax allowance (£12,500) for the tax year (though this may be bigger if you have applied for certain allowances). Your employer will usually deduct tax for you on a pay-as-you-earn basis; if you pay too much tax you can claim a refund from HMRC yourself.

Student grants, student loans, housing benefits, and most scholarships and research awards are not taxed and don’t count towards your personal tax allowance.

Can international students work part time in the UK?

Most students who are on a student visa (previously called a Tier 4 (student) visa) and studying a level 6 qualification (equivalent to a bachelors degree, a graduate diploma or PGCE) or a short-term study abroad programme can gain part-time employment in most jobs (there are exceptions) for up to 20 hours a week during term time. Those studying a full-time course below level 6 (eg a foundation degree) can work up to 10 hours a week in most jobs (again, there are exceptions). See GOV.UK for more information.

Not all international students on student visas will be able to work, as this can depend on your sponsoring institution and other factors. It’s crucial that you check that working part-time will not contravene the conditions of your visa, as doing so may negatively impact your prospects of getting further UK visas in the future. You can find more information on the UK Council of International Student Affairs (UKCISA) website.

EU, EEA or Swiss students currently living in the UK have no restrictions on working in the UK until at least June 2021. If you are an international student from the EU, EEA or Switzerland currently living in the UK, you need to have applied for settled or pre-settled status (depending on how long you have lived in the UK) by 31 December 2020. This allows you to continue to live and work in the UK after June 2021. You need to apply for a student visa if you are entering the UK after 1 January 2021 and working restrictions will depend on your visa.

Students from Ireland, however, will be able to continue to study and work in the UK beyond June 2021 without the need for a visa or settled status.

Students, zero-hour contracts and the gig economy

‘Zero hours’ has no legally accepted definition, but in general zero-hour contracts only pay you for the hours you work; there is, in principle, no onus on the employer to guarantee a set number of hours and no onus on you to accept the work. The work is often available at short notice. If you are on a zero-hour contract, it is illegal for employers to insist that you work exclusively for them.

If you are on a zero-hours contract, you will usually legally be considered an ‘worker’, though in some cases you may be legally defined as an ‘employee’. Zero-hour workers are entitled to the same minimum wage and working time regulations as other employees. You will usually pay tax as you earn, in the same way as other employees. On day one of their contract, workers receive a statement detailing leave entitlement and pay (including sickness); agency workers can’t be paid less than permanent staff in the same role; and holiday entitlement has to be calculated across 52 weeks of the year.

The ‘gig’ economy is the name for the market of short-term and freelance work, usually accessed through an app, offered by organisations such as Uber, Fiverr, Deliveroo, Hermes and AirBnB. Working as part of the gig economy is similar to a zero-hours contract, in that you have no obligation to accept work and no guarantee of work being offered to you. However, gig workers are typically paid for performing a specific job (eg delivering a parcel or giving someone a lift) instead of on an hourly rate, and they are usually legally considered self-employed (and not workers or employees). This means that you are not required to be paid the minimum wage and do not have the same rights to holiday and breaks. Self-employed people also need to register to fill a self-assessment tax return in order to pay tax.

It’s best to seek advice from an organisation such as your university, your Students’ Union, Citizens Advice or your trade union before signing a contract if you are unsure of what you are agreeing to. Before signing any contract, be clear with the employer about when you have fixed commitments – such as lecture hours. Workers’ rights on a zero-hour contract and as part of the gig economy are big stories in the news and in the courts, and it’s likely that the law surrounding these contracts will continue to change over the next few years.

NB: This feature was last updated in December 2020.

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