University students struggle with loneliness, cost of living – study

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.

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, followed by 8% stating that the course content was not what they expected.

HEPI director Nick Hillman 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.

“What happened in terms of some of the open comments was strikes coming out – students were really keen to tell us about this, and we think this could be one of the issues why value for money has increased but hasn’t increased back to the previous levels, because students are feeling the pandemic impacted on the experience, strikes are impacting on the experience as well,” he said.

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.

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.

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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.

More than half (56%) said tuition fees made their course poor value, and 39% cited teaching quality, a rise of three percentage points from 2021.

More students this year cited the cost of living as a reason for their course’s poor value – 35% in 2022 compared with 32% last year.

Concerns over in-person teaching were lower for students who felt their course was poor value compared with the 2021 figures.

A third (33%) said the volume of in-person contact time was a factor in the poor value of their course compared with 47% last year, and a similar difference was seen for access to in-person teaching.

A higher proportion of students said their course content made their course poor value for money this year – 29% in 2022 compared with 25% in 2021.

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.

Most students (64%) strongly agreed or agreed 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.

“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.”

Mr Hillman said it was “fantastic” to see many key measures “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”.

“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 added.

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