University students much lonelier than other adults, Higher Education Policy Institute study finds

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New research has revealed high rates of loneliness among university students. Trans students and those with a disability are among those worst affected.

University students are much more likely to feel lonely than the general population, according to new data.

In a study from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Advance HE, nearly a quarter of students (23%) said they felt lonely “most” or “all of the time” last year, compared with 5% of adults who reported feeling lonely “often” or “always” in 2020.

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Black students were more likely to report that they felt lonely for much of the time (31%), as were students with a disability (36%) and trans students (47%).

Mental health was a significant concern for students, with 34% of those considering leaving higher education citing their mental health.

Black, trans and disabled students were particularly likely to be lonely, the study foundBlack, trans and disabled students were particularly likely to be lonely, the study found
Black, trans and disabled students were particularly likely to be lonely, the study found | NationalWorld

The findings come after NationalWorld ran a special series investigating poor mental health on campuses, revealing that most UK universities do not know how many of their students die by suicide. The higher education sector called for urgent funding to boost mental health support for students and bereaved father Chris Brown described his battle to prevent further student sucides after losing his son, Ben, in 2020.

HEPI director Nick Hillman it was “fantastic” to see many key measures of student satisfaction “bouncing back” following the pandemic, but added that it was nonetheless a “tough time to be a student, with cost-of-living rises, mental health challenges and worries about the future”.

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“One area that we have not previously explored in the survey but which is included this year is loneliness and a notably high proportion of students say they often feel lonely,” he said.

He added that “many respondents were desperate to raise the impact of industrial action on their studies even though there was no specific question on the issue”.

He said this could be a factor in why student perceptions that their course was good value for money had not recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

The University and College Union has previously warned that students could be prevented from graduating this year because of walkouts over pay, pensions and working conditions.

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Students in their second year and third year were also more likely to say that their university experience was worse than expected compared with first and fourth years, which HEPI suggested may be because these year groups have been most severely impacted by the pandemic.

The survey of 10,142 full-time UK undergraduates also revealed that the proportion of students reporting that their course was “good” or “very good” value for money had improved since 2021 from 27% to 35% in 2022.

For 32% of students who report that their course is “poor” or “very poor” value for money, significant factors cited were tuition fees, teaching quality and the cost of living.

The findings showed that the rise in students feeling their course was good value for money was driven by students in England, while the perception of value for Scottish students had declined from 50% in 2021 to 48% in 2022.

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Most students (64%) agreed or agreed strongly that they felt comfortable expressing their views on campus even if others did not agree with them, with just 14% disagreeing.

But black and Asian students were less likely to agree that they heard a variety of different views on campus than their white peers (58% and 61% compared with 72% respectively).

Just 56% of black students said their course was sufficiently diverse, compared with 73% of white students, and black students were also less likely to report feeling comfortable on campus.

Alison Johns, chief executive at Advance HE, said: “It is welcome to see that overall, perceptions of value are recovering, though it is clear from the detail of the report that some groups, particularly black students, do not enjoy the same experience as their peers. The findings in the report offer insights for institutions to make evidence-informed change and to accelerate this improvement for all students.

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“The evidence of poor mental health remains a significant worry. I know that many in the sector are working really hard to support students, and I believe it is imperative that we draw from this evidence that we all need to do even more together, especially sharing good practice.”

Meanwhile, the Government has appointed its first student support champion to help universities detect early signs of mental health problems and prevent drop-outs.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said “trailblazer” Professor Edward Peck, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, will take on the new role, which she said embodies her “commitment to put students first”.

She told the Higher Education Policy Institute annual conference in London: “The champion’s overarching role will be to provide sectoral leadership to share best practices and promote new initiatives for how to ensure students remain supported and engaged with their courses.

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“Because the evidence shows that a student becoming disengaged with their course is not just a problem in its own right — in fact, students disengaging is a critical warning sign for mental health issues which, as we know, left unchecked can lead to devastating consequences.

“So, these critical warning signs for me present an opportunity for prevention, hitting the problem at the source and helping to defend students from mental health issues before they strike.

“And, of course, ensuring that we are focused on combating student disengagement will result in better attainment and, of course, better outcomes.”

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