More than one in four university students have said they feel lonely often or always, a report suggests.
Loneliness is more pronounced among younger students, with a third reporting that they feel lonely frequently, according to an Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey.
The findings came as the majority of university students in England – apart from those on critical courses – were told to stay at home and not return to campus as part of the lockdown announced in January.
But the poll, of more than 2,700 students in February and March, suggests that more than four in five (85%) are currently living at the same address as they were at the start of the autumn term.
It found that 26% of students reported feeling lonely often or always, compared with 8% of the adult population in Great Britain over a similar period.
Among students aged between 16 and 29, one in three (33%) said they feel lonely often or always, compared with only 12% of the overall population in the same age bracket in Great Britain.
Universities UK (UUK), which represents 140 universities across the UK, is calling on the Government to urgently turn its focus towards supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing in the weeks and months ahead.
The survey – which was carried out before the Government confirmed that students in England would be allowed to travel home for Easter – found that 24% of those currently living in student accommodation expected to stay with people outside their current household over the next two months.
Of all students, 15% said they expected to stay with people who are not part of their current household for a period of two weeks or more over the next two months – which covers Easter.
The research, carried out between February 19 and March 1, found that nearly three in five (57%) reported being dissatisfied with their social experience since the start of the autumn term.
Nearly two in three (63%) said their wellbeing and mental health had worsened since the start of the academic year – the same proportion as those surveyed in January.
The average life satisfaction score for all students was 5.1 (out of 10) this month, which remains lower than the life satisfaction of the general population in Great Britain (6.4) during the same period.
A third (33%) of students reported being dissatisfied with their academic experience since the start of the autumn term, the report said.
University students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, in England began returning to face-to-face teaching this week.
For all remaining students, the Government has said it will review options for students to return to face-to-face lessons by the end of the Easter holidays.
Tim Gibbs, from the public services analysis team at the ONS, said: “Students have continued to have a tough time into the new year, with Covid restrictions curtailing the things they can do, with many reporting dissatisfaction with their academic and social experiences at university.
“Over a quarter are feeling lonely often or always, a significantly higher amount than the adult population.
“Nearly two-thirds still report a worsening of their wellbeing and mental health since the beginning of the autumn 2020 half-term.
“Though their life satisfaction has improved slightly since January, similar to the adult population, students’ life satisfaction remains far below the national adult average and students report experiencing greater anxiety than adults.”
Vice-chancellors are calling on the Government to provide urgent provision of targeted funding for university wellbeing and mental health services.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of UUK, said: “Universities have worked extremely hard to transform support services to meet the challenges of the pandemic, moving counselling and advice online, building digital communities and developing new services to meet new needs.
“However we are continuing to see significant increases in demand for university-funded support services, which were already plugging the gaps resulting from the lack of NHS resources and funding.
“The differing level of mental health support for students depending on their location remains a concern. We need a substantive focus on students’ mental health and wellbeing from the Government, alongside student-facing NHS services to match the commitment made in the NHS Long Term Plan.”
Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “It is deeply troubling that students are not getting the support that they need, this is exacerbated by a lack of staff capacity to deal with the high number of cases and lack of funding for mental health services across the UK.
“There was already a mental health crisis on campus that has been exacerbated by Covid-19. To alleviate this crisis students need greater financial support, accessible learning spaces and safe accommodation.”