A psychologist has called on higher education institutions to tackle the "taboo" of student loneliness as a new academic year begins.
Meg Barker, a lecturer at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, speaking at the annual student wellbeing conference hosted by Strathclyde and Glasgow universities, said the culture of higher education made it difficult for students to admit to loneliness because university days were supposed to be "the happiest days of their life".
But her study of 500 students at a traditional university, one of the first studies of student loneliness in the United Kingdom, has revealed that more than 17 per cent are "clinically lonely", suffering self-doubt and isolation, a higher rate than in the population at large.
Dr Barker found a third of all students said their "main problem at university" was linked to loneliness, which was also the third highest reason students gave for considering dropping out.
Those most likely to suffer from loneliness included overseas students, mature students, first years living off campus and those in single-sex halls. Joint honours students often felt they did not "belong" in either of their study groups.
Dr Barker said: "They felt they had no one person who they felt comfortable with to go to for support, and they found it hard to make friends since they were not in one group with the same peers for lectures. This has important implications for the modular schemes that many institutions now have, where students may often be in different groups for different lectures."
Students suggested that departmental societies and social events were an important way of meeting people, and creating a sense of community. They also wanted to see "buddy" or mentor systems as a way of giving younger students realistic expectations, and better access to counsellors.
"Overall, students favoured a change in the culture of higher education, whereby the high incidence of loneliness is recognised, the taboo is decreased, and the idea of seeking support for personal problems is made more acceptable," Dr Barker said.