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Long read: Exploring the nuances of student loneliness

Over recent years, loneliness has been quietly taking hold of student communities. Its tightening grip is well-documented – but the question of what to do about it remains flummoxing, with SUs trying lots of new engagement activities. Here, we dig into the background of loneliness in students, and take a look at some of the solutions. 

Student loneliness: a consistent reality rather than a spiking trend 

In the height of 2020, it’s easy to imagine knocking on any door in student accommodation and finding a student behind it with some experience of loneliness. Charged-up on university folklore that these would be the best years of their lives, they instead arrived on campuses trapped in perpetual cycles of lockdowns, online study, and travel restrictions. For the unlucky students who contracted Covid-19, even food and drink was stripped of its element of choice.
But loneliness wasn’t just a Covid-19 thing. When Wonkhe first took the initiative to survey students about loneliness back in 2019, 81.4% of students reported experiencing it – one in three weekly, and 15.8% daily. In 2020, while the number of students experiencing loneliness daily had risen to 18.3%, the picture was much the same. By last year, HEPI had picked up on the problem. The Student Academic Experience Survey (asking, albeit, slightly different questions), found that 23% of students felt lonely all or most of the time. Just 4% of respondents to this survey said they’d never felt lonely.

Setting the scene: where do uni friendships come from?

There are, in theory, multiple friendship-forming touchpoints at university. The problem is when students slip through the cracks between them. Wonkhe’s pre-Covid research found that the most common catalyst for friendships is the academic course, faculty or department – 66.4% of students had made friends this way. Just over half (53%) had hometown friends, 35% had made friends as part of a shared hobby or interest, 33% made friends with those they lived with, and 14% made friends with sports teammates.

Students sitting on a hill

Things look a little different at collegiate universities. When Cambridge SU ran its own loneliness survey off the back of Wonkhe’s 2019 survey, the majority of students said their friendships came from their colleges (65%). A college is a neutral space – one that doesn’t have to be alcohol or sport-coded, where it’s possible to live, mingle and socialise. It’s worth noting, though, that collegiate systems were also listed as a hindering factor in making friends for some students, with one student commenting “if you have friends outside of your college, it’s very difficult to see them” due to restrictions accessing other colleges.

There is, of course, a digital elephant in the room. Social media plays a pivotal role in how students meet new people. 80% of current students use social media to connect with friends, and one in four used it to track down their flatmates ahead of university. But are social media friendships robust enough to ensure students don’t feel a sense of isolation and loneliness?

a girl on facetime sat in a field

In spite of all these opportunities to connect, a large proportion of students are still feeling lonely. Whether because they’ve fallen through the cracks, and are unable to exist comfortably on their course, in their accommodation, or even online – or whether because the quality of their friendships is low – something is wrong. Let’s think about why.


It’s no longer possible for young people to go to university without considering the financial implications. This has been the case since the fee hike from £3,000 to £9,000 – but as the cost-of-living crisis has intensified, the trope of the “skint student” has gone from being a tongue-in-cheek stereotype to a debilitating perpetual state. Students are unable to afford the basics to survive, let alone thrive. 

native research found that 52% of students work – 47% have part-time jobs, while 5% work full-time. A further 9% are engaged in a moneymaking initiative alongside their studies – side-hustles range from reselling clothing to sex work. Out of the students who don’t currently work or earn money, 26% are looking for a job. 

It’s become the norm to have some sort of work at university – for students who can’t seek family support, the maintenance loan doesn’t stretch far enough to live. Even students from more affluent  backgrounds – who once might have had some financial support from their families – are losing (or compromising on) this line of support. 

And having to work can take away the important time spent socialising and forming meaningful connections with others. Students are forced to monetise those long hours spent on campus between lectures, or their precious evenings and weekends. As the Sutton Trust found, 49% of students actually missed classes last year in order to work.

By reducing the capacity to socialise to just a few snatched moments between contact hours and work, students are unable to form the meaningful connections needed to curb loneliness. And non-SU part-time work itself doesn’t create friendships – just 13.8% of students make friends at their jobs. 

It’s a crisis that’s currently affecting students, and awaiting future cohorts, with the majority of students saying they’re impacted by the cost-of-living crisis. Even if you take work out of the picture, students have less disposable income to pay to socialise. Financial barriers are, in turn, making them time-poor – students can’t afford to do nothing. 

Space and Place

It’s not just that students can’t afford to do nothing. They have nowhere to do it. 

If you picture an ideal house, a few things probably come to mind. A front door that locks. A kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom – and a living space of some sort. For students who’ve made the jump from on-campus halls to off-campus rentals, the latter has become a luxury. In London, for example – home to 40 higher-education institutions, and around 400,000 students – just 10% of house shares have a separate living room. Across the rest of the country, it’s marginally better – but still less than a third of UK rental properties have a dedicated living space. 

This creates a stark contrast between public and private. The hours spent chilling together in a communal space must instead be divided between private bedrooms, or public spaces. Which might be fine, if cities and towns were affordable, or featured places to exist for free. But they’re not, and they don’t. Or at least they aren’t suitable to support students in their down-time; parks are too seasonal, and museums aren’t exactly purpose-built for large groups of students arriving to lounge around for hours at a time. 

In March 2023, native found that just under a third of students live in privately-rented accommodation. But those outside of this group face their own individual problems. A similar proportion were living at home with their parents or guardians; across all year groups from first to final year, that’s one in three students who are currently living at their childhood home. Commuter students are perhaps even more prone to university-related loneliness, existing off campus and with limited opportunities to connect with peers.


If we look at the most recent snapshot from HEPI, it’s clear that groups with protected characteristics feel higher levels of loneliness. 31% of Black students, 30% of LGB students, 36% of students with a disability and 47% of trans students say they feel lonely all or most of the time. According to Wonkhe, students with a disability are twice as likely to be lonely on a daily basis compared to non-disabled students. Students who come to the UK from outside of it also face disproportionate problems integrating: non-EU students are significantly less likely to feel they can call on people if they need to compared to domestic students, and one in five international students say they have “no true friends” at university. 

University is a time when your identity falls under a microscope – you learn things about yourself, your background and your characteristics that might not have been obvious before – and you do it because you’re surrounded by people who are different from you. This is a great thing. But it can also be very isolating.

A boy walks down a staircase

There is still a strong drinking culture at many UK universities, with many social events hinging on booze. Around 28% of UK students are completely sober, and a further 48% say they drink, but “only on special occasions”. This links back to the problem of space. Pubs and bars are a great place to connect, with the opportunity to sit and talk for hours, but if you don’t drink, and you can’t be around people that do, then there are few viable alternatives that get traction. 

 Clubs, societies and sports teams also hold a lot of cultural capital – as you’ll know, this model works in some universities more than others. But there can be barriers here, too, especially on the sports side. Private schools, which have more concentrated and competitive sports programs, can dominate certain teams – leaving non-privately-educated students without a foothold to get involved. However niche, it’s another door closed for young people trying to find a sense of belonging at university. 

Generation digital

As more and more Gen Z students (those born between 1996 and 2010) move through university, they’re bringing new modes of socialising with them – and as a result, new forms of loneliness. 

Gen Z were not alone in moving online during the pandemic – we all existed there for a little while. But future students were forced to digitally pigeonhole themselves at the very time they should have been building real-world connections. Students spend an average of 4.8 hours per day on platforms like TikTok, which do a great job of creating the illusion of intimacy – but don’t offer much by way of connecting with people you know. This intimate style of content is actually kidding Gen Zs into thinking they have friends.

three young men sit on a staircase, two on phones.

This, in turn, has a knock-on effect on young people’s mental health. As UCL and the Sutton Trust found last year, poor mental health among 16-17-year-olds has increased more than a quarter since 2017, with almost half (44%) falling above the threshold for “probable mental ill health”. These are the very students who will arrive at universities this September – already on shakier ground than the students at universities now. 

Like other generation-defining events, such as 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, we likely won’t understand the true impact of Covid-19 on teenagers until much later. But university will be the place that many of them explore this part of themselves. 

That said, Dr Jake Anders, Associate Professor  Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), and COSMO’s Principal Investigator, cautioned against seeing poor mental health among young people as a pure result of Covid-19. “Things were bad before, and that means there are big systematic issues that need fixing. This problem won’t get better on its own.”

If students are already arriving at university with mental ill health, the deep end of socialising and making friends becomes that bit deeper. So, how do we prevent them from floundering?

The solutions 

Student loneliness has the potential to become something of a  wicked problem – but we can alleviate it. Every Students’ Union is different, and the role you play in combating loneliness will be unique to your institution. Here are a few quickfire angles to explore. 

Taking an individual approach. Entering any university can be isolating. It’s a massive change from what new students may be used to. SUs and universities need to take an individual approach to conversations, ensuring that nobody falls through the gaps. 

Take the University of West London SU, for example. Several years ago, UWLSU introduced the Big Conversation project to ensure the SU guides and listens to students through their first few weeks at uni. It’s a way to establish a stronger individual relationship between the student and SU, giving students the support they need to flourish. Consider how you could position activities as part of ‘must-do’ activities such as enrollment to maximise benefit.  

Strategy and education. One cornerstone to tackling loneliness at universities is understanding it – what it means to students, who is more susceptible, and how SU staff can recognise and tackle it. After surveying students on loneliness, Cambridge Students’ Union launched a Student Loneliness Strategy, which recommends – among other things –  that tutors are trained to identify and address loneliness in students. 

Conscious education on bonding. As well as being clued up on loneliness as student-facing staff, it’s important that students are educated, too. Simply “making friends” isn’t working out for students at the moment – and as new cohorts of students enter university after a disrupted few years, this is going to be even more crucial. Programs like UniPersona – a tailored personality assessment for students aged 18-25 entering university – can help young people to understand themselves, and others, a little better, so they can build quality friendships from an informed perspective.

Ensure a good provision of free or low-cost event options. At least temporarily, students need to have affordable options for socialising. At native, for example, we recently launched a way for students at our partner SUs to split their payments when buying higher-cost events to make these opportunities more accessible to all students. 

Spaces and places. This is a particularly acute need for commuter students, or students who live in overcrowded house shares with no communal space. SUs can be instrumental in creating spaces that are free to use, open, and non-alcohol-coded. “We have created an event called Chill and Chat, specifically tailored for students to come together in a welcoming and alcohol-free environment during the first week of term”, says Ffion Monks, Marketing and Comms Lead at Bangor SU. “The feedback we receive from students following this event is very positive and they love this opportunity to be able to come together with new and old students and forge new friendships that can last a lifetime.” 

Diversifying clubs and societies. This might look like more beginner-level sports, to encourage students to try something new. It might involve working with C&S presidents to regularly open up their society throughout the year, holding “drop-in” or “give it a go” events after the flurry of Freshers has died down.

Remove the pressure from Freshers. It works for lots of students, but it’s also a time period where students get overwhelmed – and left behind. Invest in little-and-often “Freshers” style mixers throughout the year, to scoop up those students who are yet to forge connections. 

Looking beyond university. In the HEPI report, we can see that students are interested in the wider, off-campus community, too. For many, university means a new town or city – and students don’t just want to pass through without experiencing it. Fostering links with groups outside of your institution could ultimately benefit students. 

Destigmatisation. Above all, loneliness is normal. It will happen. The narrative around university as a time where all friendships fall into place without friction, where you’re never alone, is more alienating. By naming it – and developing solutions to alleviate it – we can sow the seeds of community so desperately needed. 

Moving forward

As a new generation of students prepare for university, our collective challenge will change – they will have different needs, different expectations, and ultimately, different experiences of loneliness. native has already started to explore what this means (as we’re sure you have, too) – from mental health to the changing face of student nightlife. We’d love to hear what you think. 

If you want to talk further about the specific challenges you’re facing as an SU and how we can help, we would love to chat