With rising numbers of people saying they feel lonely, and a well-publicised 2015 clinical study that found that isolation had the same health effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, loneliness has leapt onto the world’s health and social agenda.
The UK has been a leader on this front, appointing the world’s first Minister for Loneliness in January 2018 and releasing the government’s first Loneliness Strategy in October. This announced commitments such as GPs being allowed to carry out ‘social prescribing’ (referring lonely patients to community activities) and embedding isolation into primary and secondary school students’ relationship education to prevent student isolation in schools.
Higher education made just one fleeting appearance in the strategy.
Yet according to Sodexo’s 2017 International Student Lifestyle Report, 46% of UK students said they experienced isolation at university; far higher than the global average of 32%. This correlates with the UK having the highest rates of students who have considered dropping out, at 37%.
With isolation having huge implications for students’ wellbeing and universities’ retention rates and reputations, it’s important for unis and student accommodation providers to do as much as they can to tackle it. Here are 5 suggestions to consider in tackling student isolation.
Prevent student isolation with these tips…
1. Make your accommodation a social place
Ensuring there are social areas in student accommodation is crucial. This has improved in recent years: according to ASK4 founder Jonathan Burrows.
Most student accommodation will already have at least one communal space where flatmates can get to know each other, like a kitchen or maybe a lounge. But you can encourage students to make the most of it – consider running events such as cooking workshops or movie nights so that you can bring people together throughout the year.
The interaction between staff and students mentioned by Burrows is also important: one of the recurring conclusions of the 2018 Global Student Living Conference was that accommodation staff are uniquely well-placed to pick up on students’ wellbeing, as they see students regularly and can notice changes in demeanour.
Encouraging accommodation staff to interact with students, particularly if there are any signs of deteriorating mood or health, can create an important point of contact for lonely students.
Prevention is better than cure, and so some providers have invested in segmented allocation projects, where students fill out a short questionnaire and are sorted into like-minded groups. Allocations based on student compatibility have seen an increase in sense of community, as well as reductions in complaints and conflicts – so consider commissioning one of these projects to improve your students’ chances of making friends in accommodation.
2. Run alcohol-free events
While the decline in young people’s alcohol intake has been widely reported, students continue to be characterised as hard-living miscreants.
But in a 2018 NUS survey, 1 in 5 students said they never drink alcohol.
Although many student unions and universities have been building teetotal events into their social calendars in the last decade, nearly a quarter of students in the survey felt that there were still not enough of these.
By starting events like this from Fresher’s Week – still largely viewed as a Bacchanalian free-for-all – teetotal students can feel included in university life, and meet similarly-minded people, right from the start.
If you want to go that extra step further, universities including Bristol and St Andrews have introduced alcohol-free accommodation so that teetotal students can more easily build communities. St Andrews has found its teetotal offering massively oversubscribed; with more and more students abstaining from booze, this could become a widely-adopted option.
3. Provide multiple academic touch-points for support
Social isolation isn’t the only form of isolation that students can feel at university; academic isolation is a growing problem too.
With the cap on student numbers being lifted, leading to rapid expansion at some universities, and student fees having tripled in the past decade, students are increasingly unhappy at the amount of academic contact and support they are receiving.
The 2018 HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey found that students with fewer than 10 contact hours per week are the least satisfied with their student experience, and that ‘lack of support in independent study’ and ‘too little interaction with staff’ were the third and fourth most common reasons for university not living up to students’ expectations.
As many academics are already stretched with teaching, marking and their own research, universities may have to be creative in how they can improve access and support for students.
If you don’t already, consider putting a mentor system in place, with high-achieving students in their final year(s) of study providing guidance and advice to less advanced students. This will look good on the CV of the mentors, and give the other students valuable insight from those who have already been on the same journey.
Consider also encouraging classes to set up WhatsApp groups amongst themselves so they have a forum for discussing course material and answering each others’ questions. In addition to providing academic support, they’ll be valuable in helping distance learners and disabled students to feel involved in the community.
4. Proactively support students with different needs
Isolation is more prevalent in certain types of students, among them PhD students, international students, disabled students and distance learners.
In all cases, the most important thing is to work with these students to let them dictate what kind of support they need – they’ll know better than anyone. But it’s also good to understand in advance what nuances make students more prone to isolation than their peers, so that you can try out initiatives to counteract this.
Distance learners or disabled students can miss out on valuable contact points, such as one-to-ones with tutors or student study groups, and the sense of community that comes with socialising on campus – especially as there’s a dearth of accessible rooms in both university and private accommodation.
As suggested above, creating points of contact with other students on WhatsApp or social media is a great way for these students to get chatting to other students, and also have some extra academic support.
Promoting events held in accessible locations can also make it easier for disabled students to join in the social side of university.
International students potentially face a language and/or culture barrier; a whole new way of teaching, learning and assessment; and familial expectations to succeed. In addition to these factors, they may be a 24-hour journey away from their family and support systems.
So these students may need in-depth inductions to explain how the UK academic system works, English lessons if they’re less confident in the language, and international societies to put them in touch with other students from their country or region. Don’t forget to publicise these things in their native language – this is a little touch that will make foreign students feel included and accepted.
PhD students by their nature are isolated. They are highly specialised experts in one area of their chosen field, are reliant on the support of their supervisor – who may have little experience of providing support – and may have moved to a new city, without existing friends, whilst feeling too old or out of place to take advantage of the social opportunities offered by Freshers’ Week.
Hosting events for PhD students, that are suitable for the diverse PhD population (including international, mature, and part time students), is one way of getting these students to network and start building a community; another is to group PhD students together in accommodation, as they are likely to have similar needs.
You’ll also want to ensure that it’s clear that events and support services are open to PhD students, not just undergraduates, and to have support services liaise with PhD students about how their struggles in the university experience are different to undergrads’.
5. Actively promote support services and resources
Prevention is better than cure, but even with a proactive strategy to prevent isolation, students may still slip through the cracks and feel isolated.
It’s vital to make student support services as visible as possible by clearly promoting them on campus.
Signpost them on your digital channels, and demystify the process by providing materials that are written by students, for students: explaining how services work; detailing their experiences with them; and clarifying any misconceptions.
With university support services largely stretched and many students nervous about seeking help, another solution is to also promote online resources. These can empower students to seek help anonymously and at all times of day or night, where student services will be limited to daytime hours. Popular resources include Unihealth, Big White Wall, and Elefriends.
To learn more about student isolation, read Red Brick Research and ASK4’s study into student loneliness.