As this year’s university cohorts embark on undergraduate life, they will have a number of expectations; becoming more independent, gaining new skills and qualifications, and meeting new people.
This year has seen record numbers of young people seeking places at university, with 311,000 18-year-olds applying for courses – 10% more than the previous record of 281,000 in 2020.
This is fantastic news, especially after all the COVOD uncertainty. The problem is, too many of those young people are not getting the experience that they hope for. According to recent research, a quarter of students feel lonely ‘often or always’ and one in six university students say they have no ‘true friends’. Over half of UK students say they were dissatisfied with their social experiences during the pandemic.
I know how they feel: a few years ago, I headed off to university, full of optimism and excitement. The reality – being stuck in a tiny flat with very different people and having an accident that left me temporarily housebound – meant that I was lonely, isolated and in the end, my mental health really suffered.
And this is the issue. While university is of course about obtaining qualifications, we all know that it’s also about developing as a person, meeting new people and making new friendships. The social aspect of university is huge, and can really shape a person’s future.
So what has changed?
University-owned halls of residence were traditionally the first place to meet your fellow undergraduates on arrival at university.
However, even before COVID, rising rent costs and increasing student numbers were having an impact on the amount of people living in halls of residence. In 2019/20, of the 1.9m students in the UK, the largest share of students – 569,000 – occupied other rented accommodation. Only 175,000 were in private sector halls. The number of stay at home undergraduates in the UK, meanwhile, has risen from around 8% in the early 1990s to around 21% in 2018-19.
Student loans are now totalling £17b for around 1.3m students every year – and that’s just in England. Rising tuition fees, living costs and travel expenses are all adding up. Save the Student conducted research which found that the average amount students spend on going out and socialising is just £47 a month. One in seven students now work part-time while they study, further reducing their time to make friends.
There are now over 50,000 undergraduate courses at more than 395 providers in the UK – a fantastic amount of choice, but certainly a contributor that could prevent people making solid connections: with so many courses, there are less potential repeat meetings. My Joint Honours course meant that I was running from lecture to lecture with different people at every session – there was less consistency. This situation could make it more challenging for some people to strike up conversations and make friends.
Young people spend their time socialising and sharing content on social media channels: 82% on YouTube, 76% on Instagram and 79% on WhatsApp. Those very platforms, while enriching our lives in many ways, are also a major contributor to feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. At the start of a new university term, they will be full of people sharing images of their new social lives and friends, exacerbating any feelings of loneliness and unhappiness amongst those not having the same ‘amazing’ experience – which is exactly what happened to me.
So tech has to be a factor in driving new connections. Meeting new people is normally online for young people, not face-to-face, and Student Unions, Fresher’s Weeks and university communications need to reflect this. It needs to be embraced and harnessed effectively.
As living situations, disposable income, complex courses and changing trends change to potentially reduce some of the chances of making initial face-to-face connections, the approach needs to be one that combines social platforms and apps with real life events and experiences, using tech to first create links between people, then incentivising them to meet up.
Friendship is a crucial element in our mental health. As MentalHealthorg.co.uk states: “Our friends can keep us grounded, help us get things in perspective, and help us manage the problems that life throws at us.” The foundation has warned about the rise in mental health issues amongst students over the past few years.
By embracing technology and using it to transform traditional social situations, we can bring young people together more, helping them make friends and have better mental health – and ultimately enjoy the enriching university experiences they deserve.
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