DCMS is winging it on student loneliness

Well this is awkward.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

On the same day that I have a long read up bemoaning the fact that it only ever seems to be the Department for Education in England that thinks about students, a new initiative on student loneliness has popped up from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Timed to coincide with freshers (a welcome departure from Covid-era timings that always seemed to take the midpoint between the respective starts of Michaelmas at Oxford and Cambridge as the magical day), Stuart Andrew, the minister that holds the department’s loneliness brief, has both published some new YouGov polling on the issue and launched a new “10 point plan” awareness campaign in conjunction with Sporting Wellness, the Student Radio Association, Student Roost and Student Minds.

The polling (of 1048 students aged 18 to 24 in August) finds that “meeting new people and making new friends” and “feeling lonely” were the top concerns of students prior to starting their course – ahead of “managing money” and “course difficulty level” – although “fitting in”, “maintaining friendships” and “feeling homesick” were the next three in the chart.

We’re not told whether the sample includes PGs or international students – but either way both the additional options (including things like “cooking and cleaning for myself” and “finding housing”) and Andrew’s accompanying comments do suggest that the department imagines that everyone at university is leaving home to do so:

While freshers’ week is an exciting time for many, it can often be a daunting prospect for students. Moving away from home and away from friends and family can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially while trying to manage coursework, make new friends and often navigate a new city.

We also learn that last academic year, 1 in 4 students felt lonely “always” or “often” (with disabled students, women and LGB+ students all recording higher scores), and that 4 in 10 students “feel isolated” from their peers at university.

Interestingly, although it’s comparable to the findings in this year’s HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, that 1 in 4 figure is significantly higher than the last time the Office for National Statistics (ONS) asked the question – it found that one in five (18 per cent) students said they feel lonely often or always just over a year ago.

We don’t know if the sample’s characteristics are directly comparable, but if so that does rather disprove the “well they were asked when students were homesick” theory that peppered the socials 10 months or so ago – and in any event the two figures are consistently higher than the 6 per cent for adults in England figure that DCMS said in May has been pretty consistent over the past few years.

DCMS’ long-term loneliness strategy has barely even thought about students over the past few years, so even though some of the framing feels off and the stats seem to be getting worse, at least something is being done. Or is it?

The “10 point plan” appears to be the most basic of basic advice – and in framing around the individual action that a lonely student might take, lacks all the contextual factors like distance from campus, wider responsibilities, cost of living concerns and so on that would make it possible for a student to follow it:

  1. Spend time helping other people, such as volunteering with student groups or by offering a regular conversation to someone feeling isolated
  2. Keep in touch with friends and family over the phone
  3. Arrange something fun to do with your current friends
  4. Join a club or society at university to connect with others who have similar interests
  5. Do things you enjoy, such as playing sport, reading or listening to music
  6. Be open to everyone, as university is a great place to meet people from all different backgrounds
  7. Remember some people only share the good things happening to them on social media so try and avoid comparison
  8. Talk to someone you trust about how you feel
  9. Get in touch with the university’s student services about the welfare and support it can provide
  10. Remember that others may be feeling similar, so you are not alone

Some additional analysis of the YouGov polling, for example, found that joining a society or club was the most successful intervention – with 42 per cent of those who did this it was the most helpful action they took. That’s carrion comfort for those unable to afford the socials or who are living so far away as to make said socials inaccessible.

In the Guardian, Paul Crawford, professor of health humanities at the School of Health Sciences at Nottingham University and a director at the Institute of Mental Health, isn’t especially impressed:

This campaign conveniently ignores the fact that the opportunity for these young people to meet and learn how to build relationships in their childhoods vanished when their libraries, youth centres, swimming pools were shut, and their public spaces became less well-maintained and less welcoming under the government policy of austerity… If I was a young person, I would feel this campaign wasn’t actually about me. I would think it’s about managing trends in political debates and concerns.”

DCMS says that tackling loneliness across the UK is a “priority” – highlighting the £80m that it and its partners have invested in the issue since 2018, including over £34m in reducing loneliness caused by the pandemic. Of course barely a penny of that has gone near students.

It also highlights the £3.6m invested in Student Space, the Student Minds managed online text-chat wellbeing platform that has become the “go to” thing to lean on whenever DfE is asked about mental health.

In terms of the actual thing that DCMS is doing, spotting a bit of cash to the Student Radio Association and one of the big halls firms to tell students to “talk to someone you trust about how you feel” is hardly going to move the dial – and I doubt that “partnering with international restaurant chain Wingstop” so that its “in-store digital screens and social media channels” will “encourage students to get together at meal times and direct them to resources and support” is going to help much either – given it has precisely 21 branches in the UK, a large number of which appear to be nowhere near a university campus.

It’s not just that this is all so weak, though – it’s that it might all make it worse. In the Guardian Katie Wright-Bevans, a lecturer in psychology at Keele University who has written about undergraduate loneliness, effectively accuses the initiative of victim blaming:

…anything that places responsibility on the individual to connect with others, without any meaningful infrastructure supporting that connection, is dangerous because it risks exacerbating existing loneliness and perpetuating a sense of blame… It’s frustrating when politicians come out with these platitudes and place responsibility on the individual to do something about what is fundamentally a community ill and not an individual ill.

Still, it’s a start – and if nothing else a vivid reminder that the need to deliberately foster environments that create social connection has very much not gone away.

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