Deserted corridors, students trapped in their rooms, a gnawing loneliness. As we remodel how students live and learn, loneliness must be a key consideration says one student.
When I moved into student accommodation at the beginning of the year, in the thick of the third national lockdown, I did not anticipate the loneliness that would grip my reality. All I had looked forward to before leaving my parents’ house was to finish my final year as an English Literature and Italian student in quiet and peace. What I quickly realised was how the perpetual silence could very much feel like one was stuck in solitary confinement.
Within the corridors of the building was a radio silence that engulfed and sounded louder with each grey, rainy, winter day that rolled by. My block consisted of studio flats and I could go days without seeing a single soul in the corridor apart from the property manager. To make matters worse, we were not allowed to use communal spaces such as the cinema, gym, study area or anywhere else that could potentially attract large groups of people (even though it was included in our rent).
Searching for companionship
The (many) times that the loneliness became unbearable I would walk around the town’s centre, searching for somebody, anybody that could provide me with a modicum of companionship. Often there was no one. When this would happen I would waste countless hours on YouTube and TikTok until I could feel my eyeball sting from exhaustion.
The only time I could reliably indulge (yes, at this point it had become a luxury) in face-to-face communication was when I went to work at the hospital. This was a respite from the loneliness but not from the pandemic – the devastating impact was everywhere you looked and was all anyone really talked about.
It’s not easy to admit to being lonely as a student. Loneliness still has the stigma of shame attached to it, plus it’s the antithesis of what many people hope their uni experience will be like.
Loneliness among students
My experience of restricted freedoms is not unique. It was played out in student halls across the country with escalating tensions sometimes making it into the press, such as the University of Manchester students who woke up to find they were fenced in. Nor is my experience of loneliness unusual. According to a survey conducted by the Mental Health Organisation, the beginning of the third lockdown saw 34% of people aged between 18-25 admit to feelings of loneliness. This was most prevalent among full-time students.
It’s not easy to admit to being lonely as a student. Loneliness still has the stigma of shame attached to it, plus it’s the antithesis of what many people hope their uni experience will be like. For many of us, what is exciting is the opportunity of making new friendships and being able to have our first forkful of independence.
Thankfully, the students who are freshly stepping onto their university grounds this month or are returning will not have to go through last year’s ordeal due to the mass vaccine rollout.
The introduction of a hybrid learning environment in universities means that students are going to have more flexibility with how they receive their education. As it stands, most universities in the UK are providing a blended format of learning, with over 70% of them primarily delivering lectures online. Though this may appear an apt adjustment, I am concerned that doing most of our learning digitally could impede our integration into university life when opportunities to connect with peers are limited.
What can universities do?
Universities must view students’ mental wellbeing as priority. This is non-negotiable. Not doing this will negatively impact their academic life. Flexibility should be the name of the game. The one good thing about the last 18 months was that students had more say over how they were assessed – with online assessments, open-book and take-home exams.
Something that my university did during the pandemic that I found very helpful was the weekly newsletter. This provided detailed updates on the university’s handling of the coronavirus. They also shared resources for students who were struggling with their mental health, and though I did not use them, it was nice to have that option there should I have needed to.
There needs to be more awareness about loneliness in students, both so students don’t feel alone when they experience it and so people who provide pastoral care can look out for it and proactively address it. There should be a concentrated effort to understand what support international students need as there are high rates of loneliness in this group. For them, welfare checks may prove beneficial.
Ultimately as the mode of learning increasingly shifts online, the higher education sector needs to figure out how to encourage deep connections offline to combat the dangerous consequences of loneliness.
Catherine Fadashe is a member of the McPin’s Young People’s Network. You can read more about McPin’s research on loneliness here.