‘Growing disconnect’ between students and UK universities

Students feeling lonely and ‘underwhelmed’ by university experience, warns UPP Foundation report based on survey and focus groups

March 4, 2024
Source: iStock/Tero Vesalainen

Nearly half of students at UK universities feel lonely while half have never had any career guidance, leaving many “feeling underwhelmed by the university experience” as they struggle with living costs, according to a report warning how the “new realities of student life” could impact the sector.

The UPP Foundation’s Student Futures 2 report is based on a poll of more than 1,600 students carried out by Group GTI, as well as eight focus groups carried out with students at a range of UK universities, and eight interviews with institutional leaders.

The report looks at the student experience two years on from a manifesto published by the UPP Foundation’s Student Futures Commission, a response to the pandemic’s impact on the student experience.

While the report finds “plenty to be pleased about” in institutions’ post-pandemic responses, it also finds that 44 per cent of students responding to the survey said that they felt lonely at university; 44 per cent were less engaged with extracurricular activities than they were expecting to be, while a quarter (25 per cent) had never engaged at all; and 50 per cent of students had not had any specific conversations or guidance about future careers from their university.

“There is a growing gap between expectations of the student experience and reality – students in our focus group frequently reported feeling underwhelmed by the university experience, particularly international students,” says the report.

The problem, it adds, is “compounded by the pressures of the cost-of-living crisis and the insufficiency of maintenance support – which leave students struggling to engage with the basics of the university experience (lectures, seminars, and campus facilities), never mind the opportunities to participate in wider student life that has always been seen as fundamental to the higher education offer.”

A female zoology student at a Russell Group university told one of the focus groups: “Sometimes I miss uni because I’ll prioritise taking a shift over university, just because the amount of rent to pay is crazy, and you don’t get enough support for that.”

A female international student in media and communications at a red-brick university said: “I have had to compromise taking classes that I wanted to take just because it doesn’t fit with my [work] schedule.”

Former Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook and UPP Foundation executive chair Richard Brabner write in their foreword: “A concerning number of students are exhausted and lonely, with their mental health worsening. The Ucas data for applications before the January 2024 deadline shows demand is softening amongst both school leavers and mature students as news reports about the new realities of student life abound.”

On the positive aspects found by the report, about three-quarters of students responding to the survey said they felt happy at university, while there were examples of universities designing and delivering student manifestos.

But, write Ms Curnock Cook and Mr Brabner, the wider findings highlight how a “deterioration of government support for universities and students – political and financial – is putting at risk a generation of talent that is sorely needed to uphold a healthy society, a growing economy and the challenges of the technological age”.

Mr Brabner told Times Higher Education: “Looking in depth at the research findings shows a mixed picture for the student experience. The focus groups in particular revealed a student body which is largely satisfied but quite disengaged with the wider immersive elements of the student experience.

“As a sector it is critical we tackle this – not only is it morally the right thing to do, but it also impacts non-continuation and will possibly soften demand if there is a cohort of graduates entering the world of work who are not enthusiastic about their time at university.”


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Reader's comments (2)

Well well .... Demotivated lecturers - real pay cuts, increased workloads, ever demanding promotion criteria Demotivated students - About the only people thriving in British Universities are overpaid senior leadership teams and bureaucracy. I wonder of there is a connection?
Completely agree with the above comments - too many Head of's and teams creating documents rather than outputs or change. Recruitment based on previous relationships rather than skill or experience and transient leaders departing before there is any accountability. Has a project management ethos and ridiculous levels of governance killed universities' ability to teach and do research effectively ? More resources are devoted to the administration of projects rather than the actual solution - no wonder improvement is at snail's pace.