Whenever I look at qualitative comments on reasons for not physically engaging in things, I’m struck by the number of times I read a version of “nobody to go with”.

Whether we’re talking careers events, extracurriculars or even lectures and labs – cost, travel, logistics, commitments and interest do all feature, but anxiety about not knowing anybody is always there – lurking at the back in the free text.

It’s why I’ve long been fascinated by loneliness, community, belonging and their links to engagement, mental health and outcomes – because that sort of stuff has always felt like something that ought to be within higher education’s increasingly weak grasp in the grand realm of factors that might be making student life difficult.

It’s also always struck me that the relative lack of diversity, the time and resources to immerse in campus life and just the sheer difference in scale of higher education almost certainly meant that it wasn’t something that the sector used to have to think about – but given the changes, almost certainly does have to do now.

Know the way I feel tonight

Since 2019’s Only the lonely, we’ve worked with a number of partners on loneliness and belonging – with Pearson on identifying its four foundations, with Group GTI/Cybil on understanding its links to outcomes and confidence, and with the UPP Foundation on its Student Futures work, when poll after poll demonstrated the damage that isolation was having on students’ mental health and confidence.

This year, as part of our pulse polling partnership with GTI/Cibyl (which our subscriber SUs can take part in for free), we’ve been interrogating loneliness from all sorts of angles. (Polling that follows from multiple waves in A/Y 202324, weighted for gender and university type, n= between 1000 and 2000 depending on the question and wave).

I’ve been fascinated to find, for example, that where students think that staff are supporting their learning well, over two thirds have friends on the course – but where they don’t, that falls to just half:

 Staff are supporting my learning well (strongly agree + agree)Staff are not supporting my learning well (strongly disagree + disagree)
Has course friends67.1%
Has no course friends32.9%48.7%

And when students make judgements about student support adequacy and appropriateness, those that are happy tend to have more friends on the course too:

 Support services are appropriate and adequateSupport services not appropriate and adequate
Has course friends67.5%56.9%
Has no course friends32.5%43.1%

We can flip that around. When we ask, for example, whether students think there are enough staff on their programme, two thirds of those who feel part of a community agree there are enough – falling to just 45 per cent when they don’t feel part of things:

 Feels part of communityDoesn't feel part of community
Thinks there's enough staff80.2%47.1%
Thinks there's not enough staff9.3%34.4%
Doesn't know10.9%18.5%

Even more vividly, when we look at those who are positive about being part of the community, 90 per cent say that support services appropriate and sufficient – while just 56 per cent of those who don’t feel part of things agree that services are appropriate and sufficient:

 Feels part of communityDoesn't feel part of community
Thinks there's enough staff80.2%47.1%
Thinks there's not enough staff9.3%34.4%
Doesn't know10.9%18.5%

While there are fascinating differences in the extent to which students are finding friends in interests or domiciles (that if nothing else challenge what the sector says to itself about home and international student interaction), the fact that around 35 per cent of students (regardless of characteristic) have course mates is surely something that could be turned around:

 InternationalHome domicile
Has course friends63%66%
Has no course friends37%34%
Has hobby/interest friends32%53%
Has no hobby/interest friends68%47%
Has international friends52%8%
Has no international friends48%92%

And I’ve talked before about thew way in which the UK’s student social infrastructure lags behind that of Europe when it comes to subject – this chart rather reinforces the problem:

 Has friendsHas friends but no course friendsNo friends
Is happy with non-academic support support 83.9%76.9%56.3%
Is not happy with non-academic support support 16.1%23.1%43.8%

There goes my heart

To interrogate this all bit further, I’m grateful to the team at the UPP Foundation, Public First and GTO/Cybil who gave me access to the dataset underpinning their Student Futures Commission 2 report.

The headlines in the main report on belonging and loneliness, and the data itself, reflect our now long-standing understanding of the links between the two concepts – underlining the frustration many have felt at the abolition of the “learning community” question from the NSS.

That’s partly about mental health. 78 per cent of students who say they are not lonely say they’re happy at university – while just 36 per cent of students who are lonely say they’re happy in HE:

 LonelyNot lonely
Feel they belong48%84%
Don't feel they belong25%4%

Loneliness links to careers confidence too. 60 per cent of students who aren’t lonely feel prepared for the world of work – while less than 40 per cent who are lonely have that sense of readiness:

And crucially, while 43 per cent of lonely students say that higher education has hit their mental health negatively, just 10 per cent of non-lonely students say the same:

 Say they're lonelySay they're not lonely
Negative M/H impact43%10%
Positive M/H impact56%90%

So while correlation is not necessarily causation, we ought to want to know what might be making students lonely – and what they say might make it better.

Know the heartaches I’ve been through

In the Student Futures polling, there’s an interesting set of differences between living situations. Those in their own properties – doubtless with an intersection with age – are lest likely to be lonely. And it perhaps shouldn’t surprise us that those living in an HMO with friends are less likely to be lonely than those in a cluster flat, and those commuting from the parental home.

 Own propertyOff campus hallsOn campus hallsParental homeShared flat/house

One hypothesis in the polling was that maybe welcome weeks (or their absence) might be causing students to feel lonely. But differences between those who had one and those who, for whatever reason, didn’t, aren’t particularly significant. Another is the idea that “induction” ought to last all term rather than be packed into a week or two at the start. And while lonely students are more likely to say that it should last longer, that doesn’t really explain the issue:

 Those who are lonelyThose who are not
Yes should last all term73%61%
No shouldn't last all term27%39%

One thing that is clear is that engagement in extracurricular activities does seem to make a difference. This chart contrasts positive and negative feelings of belonging with the regularity of participation – and the numbers really do speak for themselves:

I belong at my university75%74%63%44%
I don't belong at my university8%9%12%27%

But it would almost certainly be dangerous to just assume that longer inductions and a bigger Freshers Fair are the things that would turn around the epidemic of lack of connectedness on campus.

And in a context of commitments, costs, jobs and long commutes, for the me the most interesting question in the Student Futures polling was on what students say would make them feel more connected.

Maybe tomorrow, a new romance

For those that aren’t saying they’re lonely, (better) mental health support, (what I assume students read as 121) mentoring, sport, (more) staff open door hours and better pastoral care and socials with staff all hover at the 20-25 per cent mark.

That’s not to say that they’re not important – but it is to say that most universities have plenty of that sort of stuff on already, and a major expansion of any of those things feels difficult in what’s also a university funding crisis.

 Say they are not lonelySay they are lonelyVery lonely
More time on campus0.610.560.48
Social with other students0.510.530.43
Extra curricular activities0.430.420.35
Faculty/department events0.420.380.35
SU events0.340.330.3
Socials with staff0.240.260.19
Better pastoral care0.230.260.2
Staff open door hours0.220.230.2
Mental health support0.180.210.21

The upper half of the chart, ironally, feels more simple but would appear to be more impactful. “SU events” is perhaps a bit too broad to draw conclusions from, but events within the faculty/department feels like something that better supported academic societies could be staging – see my note on the Midwifery Society at UWS.

“Extra curricular activities” takes us back to where we were above, as does “Freshers/Welcome week”. But right up there are “informal social activity with other students”, and “spending more time on campus”. That rather suggests that while students are coming less (and need to come less), when they are there they need the scaffolding, space and affordable catering to cause social interaction to occur.

And you’ll see that the numbers for those who say they are lonely don’t change much, and neither does the order.

Of course for anyone who’s responsible for anything on the list above, the challenge is securing engagement. And here is where the qualitative comments in the polling have been fascinating to analyse, code and conclude from.

No more sorrow, but that’s the chance

Seventh in the chart is perceptions and preferences – some lack of interest, sometimes related to transactional attitude to course. There really are, it seems, a group of students that at least say that they are “just not interested in all that”, although its prominence in the discourse can often feel like an excuse given how relatively infrequently students said it in the qual.

Information and access is a factor too where a lack of info or difficulty accessing updates on activities, especially on large campuses, is clearly also a factor. One thing that is clear in this thread is that the sense that it’s overwhelming to find the disparate range of events and opportunities being staged by various professional services and SU departments being advertised in different websites or emails – as well as repeated comments that suggest students think that “after welcome week it’s all too late”.

As I noted here, health and disability is also a factor. Physical injuries or conditions, mental health challenges like stress, depression, and anxiety are all in the mix – as is a need for inclusive activities that accommodate diverse health requirements and promote well-being.

I’ve long been astonished that all sorts of Disability support is available and funded only in the context of the academic programme rather than broader student life – and as the proportion of students that are Disabled grows, as will the proportion of those who say they can’t access engagement opportunities “due to my health”. Risk 7 in OfS’ EORR has never felt more important.

Around the middle of the chart, perhaps inevitably, is financial factors. Costs associated with joining activities or travelling to venues, compounded by the need to work part-time jobs, is clearly limiting students’ ability to engage. That’s not just about the cost of joining a club or purchasing kit – it’s also the affordability of the social costs attached to such activity, like buying a round.

Logistics are even more important. Inconveniences related to time, location, and scheduling conflicts, clashes with coursework, part-time jobs, or personal responsibilities, and physical distance from events or the hassles of travel are also clearly starting to bite.

But the top two are almost certainly things that the sector can impact. In second place is social and cultural factors – feelings of isolation or not fitting in, often due to ethnicity, cultural background, age, personal interests – as well as the social dynamics within activities, especially where risky behaviours and/or drinking is seen as a norm. The number of times that “they are not like me”, or “that’s not a welcoming environment for me” appears in the qual should cause everyone in HE to redouble efforts at causing students who aren’t like each other to spend more time with each other – and to make sure that they don’t get six weeks in without having found some friends.

But the other big one that’s related to that is anxiety, the fear of joining in, having nobody to go with, a fear of being judged, a fear of large events, and disability preventing participation – some of which is related to (the perception) of welcome week events. Anxiety is the one mental health factor that got worse during the pandemic that hasn’t substantially fallen since – and challenges everyone to make the mass HE system feel smaller for students, regardless of whether they have a formal Disability or not.

No more sorrow

There’s much to think about here – the way in which loneliness and belonging is related to health and outcomes, the importance of it from an access and participation point of view, and the way in which it appears to impact all sorts of other things that matter in the metrics and help in student success. And it is clearly true that time, money and interest matter – but not as much as overwhelm and a need to avoid the increasingly “deep ends” of the mass higher education experience.

For me, what this all tells us is that putting in place the scaffolding that allows students to find connections as locally as possible – especially within their school or department – is really important. Strengthening academic societies, putting in place compulsory social mentoring programmes and being mindful of the need to create multiple and regular entry points into campus activities all year are things that SUs and universities should be working on now – as well as leaders at every level driving a culture of empathy for the situation students are in , partly by enabling more students to be leaders themselves.

Pound for pound, doing all of that looks more likely to result in the connection that students say they need to survive and thrive than an underfunded single project or campaign, or piling more resources into pastoral care or individual service provision, which may well cause students to feel more looked after, but often make them feel no more (and sometimes less) connected.

Oh – and while they struggle to get there, and need to come less often, we shouldn’t forget just how crucial the campus clearly still is to so many students. Maybe there was some misreading both during and post-pandemic – yes they were cooped up on their own, but they also missed (and now miss) the place. If they are to come less often, it’s clear that making it somewhere that feels like theirs, somewhere where they can spend time (and less money), and a place that’s just more amenable to doing and organising and making things together, are things that ought to be central in everyone’s thinking.

(a random, unsupervised corridor at KTH in Stockholm)

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