More than one in four students feel lonely often or always

There’s a new batch of survey results out today on students and Covid-19 which reveals a remarkably lonely student body.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

In the ONS release, over a quarter (26 per cent) reported feeling lonely “often or always”, compared with 8 per cent of the adult population in Great Britain over a similar period. “Hardly ever” or “never” runs at 18 per cent here, compared to 47 per cent for GB adults.

Given the links between loneliness, mental health and student outcomes, we ought to worry quite a bit about this – universities and SUs should be considering how to address the issue over the summer, and the government should be considering a specific strand for students in its loneliness work.

(As ever, given that strategy owned by Culture, Media ands Sport, even if the officials see the stats they’ll probably think “well that’s Gavin’s problem”, a recurring theme during the pandemic).

Nevertheless, average life satisfaction scores for students have improved a little bit following a dip in January 2021 from 4.8 to 5.1 out of 10 – but the figure is still statistically significantly lower than the average life satisfaction scores for the adult population in Great Britain at 6.4 over a similar period:

 Life SatisfactionWorthwhileHappyAnxious            
ONS Students February 2021
ONS Students January 2021
ONS Student Pilot Nov 20205.365.65.3
Students SAES Spring 2020776.64.3
ONS General Population Feb 20216.476.64.1
ONS General Public Nov 20206.
ONS General Public Jan 20216.476.54.6

Universities UK has a quote out in response calling for mental health funding, and doubtless DfE would say “well we’ve asked universities to prioritise this and we’ve also invested in Student Space” like it always does. That blame game is what it is – but what’s really needed now is some clarity on student mixing as we intensify the process of dragging them back to campus. Those loneliness and mental health stats won’t be getting much better if we continue to worry only about Box A, and DfE’s repeated suggestion that face to face teaching is “good for mental health” only really works if the hours spent not in teaching are in anything other than miserable isolation.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been undertaking what it calls the Student Covid-19 Insights Survey (SCIS) for a while now – analysis of previous releases are on the ONS SCIS tag and here if you want to see how things have developed. This time we’re looking at how students felt between 19th February and 1st March, and we’re talking about students whose university is in England.

A shocking looking number is that ONS reckons that 77 per cent of students on a subject where face-to-face teaching was permitted at the time attended zero hours of teaching in the week prior to survey completion. What we don’t know is how many students on the permitted list had been “called back” to campus, nor do we know how many had been timetabled something face to face but not attended for whatever reason.

Most of the results in this release look stable when compared to February. We’re still on 5 per cent of students unlikely or extremely unlikely to continue their studies, with “online learning” cited as the top reason for considering dropping out. Active dissatisfaction with the academic experience is still hovering at around a third. Frustratingly, ONS has kept to its questions on testing that ignore the emergence of the twice weekly lateral flow population screening thing – it would be useful to get a clearer sense of participation rates amongst students that are “back”, but we don’t have that here.

New in this release is some intel on vaccination. In the general population 94 per cent of citizens have received at least one dose of the vaccine, have been offered the vaccine and are waiting to be vaccinated, or say they are fairly likely to have the vaccine if offered. That’s only 88 per cent for students – with 5 per cent saying “fairly unlikely” or “very unlikely” and 4 per cent undecided (with the rest preferring not to say).

That generates some interesting questions ahead of September. Generally around the UK vaccines for stuff like measles, mumps and rubella or meningitis have long been merely ”strongly advised” by universities for students and only mandated on particular health courses. But given ongoing worries about the autumn and the possibility of household self-isolation rules remaining in place, is it reasonable to ask students to join a new “household” (often a cluster of rooms in halls) where collective responsibility is implied in the rules but where some “householders” are refusing to get the vaccine?

One fascinating new insight is that 25 per cent of students had left home to do paid or voluntary work in the previous 7 days – and two thirds of them were in roles primarily involving direct contact, in person, with patients, clients, residents, service users or customers on a day to day basis. Sadly we don’t know which home they were leaving from, if they have two.

One response to “More than one in four students feel lonely often or always

  1. Remembering the feelings of isolation, even in packed lecture halls, 40 years ago when many of us as students gravitated to the union bar afterwards to discuss the presentation and anything else that mattered at the time whilst engaging in much needed social intercourse before reverting to solo study I cannot but wonder if the real problem is students are not being spoon-fed social activities to keep them ‘engaged and entertained’ now. The modern always connected world can be extremely lonely if your not connecting directly socially with others in person, with the very real danger of comparing oneself to the projected ‘perfect’ images of others lives leading to immense dissatisfaction with ones life in general.

    Such dissatisfaction can lead to some very dark places mentally, and the risk of self harm, or if as a means of becoming part of something larger to fill the void joining in with those that harm others in political movements that see violence as acceptable, with the supposed ends justifying the means. Limited face to face teaching time and distance from a safe ‘home’ learning environment will be very likely to increase such harmful behaviours, Universities would be well advised to keep a eye out for those who will seek to recruit disaffected students for ‘direct action’ in the coming months

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