Students are getting more lonely, not less

Take out the trash day saw the Department for Culture, Media and Sport slip out its fourth annual report on tackling loneliness.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It says it highlights progress made since the publication of the cross-government strategy in 2018 and commits to action over the next two years.

I can’t pretend that I was especially enamoured with the third annual report last year, and you’ll never guess what I think about this year’s effort.

Under “Progress since 2018”, we are told that the number of adults (16+) experiencing chronic loneliness in England has remained consistent over the last five years at 6 per cent, based on data from DCMS’ Community Life Survey – but that since then the department has developed a much greater understanding of which groups are more at risk of experiencing chronic loneliness.

In 2018, it even introduced a new national measure of loneliness with the aim of collecting more data on loneliness and measuring it more consistently, and it was used in ONS’ Student COVID-19 Insights Survey (and, not mentioned here, ONS’ Cost of living and higher education students survey).

What DCMS doesn’t say is that this time last year, 17 per cent of students said they were lonely “often or always” and 29 per cent said they were lonely “some of the time” – much higher than the average for adults or wider young people.

And so naturally what DCMS doesn’t say is that this year, with Omicron a distant memory, ONS still found 17 per cent of students saying they were lonely “often or always” and now 33 per cent said they were lonely “some of the time”.

The student loneliness problem is worse, and is getting worse. Although if you ignore the stats, you don’t have to do anything about it, eh.

Hence the “Major fund to tackle loneliness and boost volunteering” that DCMS launched earlier this month doesn’t mention students or universities once.

Of course, cross-government strategies necessarily involve the relevant civil servants ringing around other departments to see if there’s anything been going on that might bulk out a report like this.

DfE does it bit here by trumpeting OfS funding for Student Space and asking OfS to establish and disseminate “what works” to help universities and colleges make use of effective practice in supporting mental health.

It’s not clear to me that any of that is actually about loneliness, and this is the same OfS that has now deleted a question from the NSS on feeling part a community.

It also says it will “continue to strongly support” the University Mental Health Charter led by Student Minds which it says “includes guidance on loneliness.” There’s a couple of pages on belonging (57 and 58), but “guidance” is a stretch.


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