culture + environment creating health + wellbeing engaged research

The Lonely Campus

The Beacon project, Loneliness and Community, led to the development of the Lonely Campus report.


The Lonely Campus? An Exploration of Student Loneliness in UK Higher Education

“Many students arrive at university with high expectations for sociability, friendship, and belonging. At the same time, however, there is extensive international evidence that many students feel excluded from vital networks and communities, and experience significant loneliness over the course of their education. This research set out to explore students’ experiences of loneliness at two University of Exeter campuses, Streatham and St Luke’s.”


Executive Summary 

Student loneliness is an increasingly important mental health issue that has been found to negatively impact academic and social adjustment to life at university (Wohn & LaRose, 2014; Vasileiou et al., 2019). Loneliness appears to be a particularly significant challenge for UK universities.  In a 2017 survey by Soxedo, for example, 46% of UK university students admitted to experiencing loneliness at university, compared to 32% of students in the rest of the world (Bhaiyat et al., 2018). Contrary to popular opinion, which suggests that older people are more likely to experience loneliness than younger populations, recent research suggests that younger people are likely to experience loneliness ‘more acutely and painfully’ than older cohorts, possibly due to the number of transitions faced by young people during adolescence and young adulthood (Vasileiou et al., 2019, p. 22; Rokach, 2000; Cutrona, 1982; Ponzetti, 1990). An AXA poll found that those aged 18-24 were more likely to experience loneliness ‘most of the time’ in comparison to respondents aged 70 and over (Bhaiyat et al., 2018). These figures indicate that the loneliness experienced by students is a sector-wide problem that requires addressing not only in universities, but across society as a whole.

This study on student loneliness at University of Exeter campuses suggests that student loneliness is a multi-faceted experience, affected by multiple dimensions of life at university. Three key components are discussed in this report. First, students report the need to be authentic with themselves and with other students. This relates to preoccupations with emerging and transformative identity as students negotiate life stage transitions, geographical relocation, and contact with new people and social groups. Second, university infrastructure (such as the university year structure), built environment, and accommodation create certain expectations of how student life should progress which, when unfulfilled, create further loneliness. Third, the students interviewed felt uneasy that opportunities for community and relationships tended to revolve around the university.  They expressed a desire to feel more connected to civic and community societies and activities that could help them feel more linked to life beyond the university in Exeter.

These are the primary themes highlighted by this study. They pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic but will remain pertinent once the impact of the pandemic begins to recede and students return to a semblance of normal university life. Our follow-up research shows the pandemic did impact students’ sense of loneliness, particularly in missing the day-to-day human contact that normal life on campus can offer. Students felt that their work patterns and spaces were disrupted, but that the best kind of university support came from their immediate educational providers (i.e. their Departments), rather than from central communications sent to the student and staff population as a whole. This report offers twelve recommendations for preventing and mitigating student loneliness on campus in ways that respond to each of the three core themes arising from the workshops with students that took place in the autumn of 2019 and in April 2020.



  1. Create and distribute among students (possibly via the Student Guild) a list of approved Exeter-based civic and community societies and opportunities for student involvement – organisations that could facilitate volunteering, rather than a list of opportunities themselves.
  2. Relieve pressure on first-year students to find second-year accommodation quickly. One way to do so is by liaising with the Studentpad portal to advise landlords not to advertise undergraduate student accommodation until Christmas each year.
  3. Consider providing university-wide communications through Departments (or Colleges), to foster greater connection between students and their direct educational facilitators.
  4. Provide clarity to students in halls of residence about how they may personalise their rooms and, where possible, provide students at move-in with a ‘Hack Your Halls’ box, containing ‘items to safely decorate and personalise the space, perhaps a “Do Disturb” door sign when people are feeling social, wayfinding to mental health services, ability to set up floor or building WhatsApp groups and other items’.  The ‘Hack Your Halls’ initiative was pioneered by the Loneliness Lab with London College of Communication students.
  5. Continue to ensure student safety by maintaining adequate lighting on all areas of the campus where footpaths intersect large amounts of foliage/shrubbery and by offering better signage to walking routes around campus.
  6. Consider adding more low-maintenance indoor plants to study spaces on campus so that students feel more connected to nature while working.
  7. Further involve students in the creation of student marketing materials, to represent the university as students experience it.  Session
  8. Ensure that welcome days and contact with personal tutors and year tutors include a focus on mental health and social connection, involving not only discussions around what might help students in that cohort connect, but also encouraging them to feel responsible for each other’s inclusion.
  9. Provide training on mental health and community formation to Welfare reps of student societies, and as part of their role prioritise inclusion and creating a welcoming environment for new members.
  10. Establish a Student Prospectus Committee, for students to offer timely feedback on the content of university marketing material (especially related to wording regarding the ‘student experience’), to foster a more realistic and accurate representation of life at Exeter, including some of the challenges.
  11. Support the formation and embedding of a student lived experience group to advise on university policy on health, welfare, and wellbeing.
  12. Ensure that building social connections is not a luxury but core to what students do as they learn, for example by using more collaborative learning techniques. To achieve this, the University might need to provide some training, or make resources available to staff about how to embed social connection in teaching.


Read the full report here: The Lonely Campus?