For the second of our trifecta of articles into the phenomena of student loneliness, Niall Campbell (Project Officer with the Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan at the University of Cambridge) spoke to the author of the recent loneliness report and outgoing CUSU president Edward Parker-Humphreys, to unpack what he thinks about to this profound and prevalent issue.  

Find the first article in the series here

Niall Campbell: So Ed, why did you initially become interested in this topic? 

Edward Parker-Humphreys: I think one of the things that particularly interested me about the topic of student loneliness was how little it was talked about as an issue in Cambridge. There has been a lot of discussion about student welfare and mental health in recent years, yet this aspect of that conversation had seemingly been overlooked. Having seen how isolating a place Cambridge can be for students, I wanted to figure out what could be done to tackle student loneliness.

NC: How do you define the term 'loneliness'?

EPH: I define loneliness as “a feeling of being unhappy because of a lack of meaningful social interactions”. This definition highlights the importance of ‘meaningful social interactions’ in understanding and preventing loneliness, an element which I feel is particularly relevant in a university context. My research suggests that many students who report regular feelings of loneliness have plenty of ‘friends’, but lack meaningful social interactions, whether as a result of time pressures or an inability to find the ‘right people’.

"There has been a lot of discussion about student welfare and mental health in recent years, yet this aspect of that conversation had seemingly been overlooked"

NC: What, in your opinion, are the biggest structural levers the University of Cambridge could pull to mitigate the problem of loneliness?

EPH: Consistent provision of tutorial support across the Collegiate University would have a significant impact in mitigating loneliness among students. Loneliness can often be a hidden problem and one that students might feel embarrassed to talk about or unsure how to tackle. Tutors can play a vital role in this regard if they are able to facilitate conversations with students that can identify problems and come up with solutions. Ensuring that all students have regular scheduled meetings with tutors (who are properly equipped with the training and skills needed to support them) would be a huge step forward.

Restructuring the Cambridge term to include a full Freshers’ Week and reading week would also make a huge difference. Not only would this reduce the material burden on students in terms of workload and create more opportunities for socialising early on, it would also send a clear message about work-life balance and the importance of a healthy social life alongside academic study.

NC: During the recent loneliness forum, you presented a slide showing the relative range of friendship group sizes within the student sample. Could the findings not be interpreted as a sort of  'normative distribution curve', merely illustrating differing propensities to gregariousness?

A graph from the recent Student Loneliness ForumCUSU/Edward Parker-Humphreys

EPH: In and of itself, the data around students’ friendship groups (or lack thereof) is not necessarily a cause for concern. What it does illustrate, however, is that this is not simply a problem of a lack of friends, given the mismatch between the percentage of students feeling lonely on a daily/weekly basis and the percentage who identify as having no true friends. This points towards other contributing factors which might prevent people from having meaningful social interactions (e.g. lack of time, workload). 

NC: How does the collegiate system intersect with all of this in your opinion?

EPH: The collegiate system can be a bit of a double-edged sword in relation to all of this. Clearly it has huge benefits in creating defined communities within the university that are a natural source of friendship for many students and provide opportunities for socialising. However, some students have highlighted how they can quickly become quite isolating places if you fail to make friends early on and there is often a perception of having ‘missed the boat’ in this regard. We definitely need more ways of promoting interactions between students from different colleges, rather than assuming all students will make friends within their college.

It’s also clear that for some students, particularly PhD students, colleges are not the primary source of friendship and we should be wary of relying on them too much to provide opportunities for socialising.

NC: What are your thoughts on the relative influence of workload? 

A graph from the recent Student Loneliness ForumCUSU/Edward Parker-Humphreys

EPH: My research indicates that student workloads have a significant impact on loneliness in Cambridge, with many students feeling unable to find the time for socialising as a result of the amount of work they have to get through. I would also argue that it goes far beyond the ‘culture of work’ in Cambridge - in some cases, there is simply too much of it and course curriculums need slimming down. Given Faculties and Departments can expect students to work up to 48 hours a week during term time, it’s no wonder that students struggle to find time for socialising.  

NC: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about Cambridge University that you think would buffer this issue, what would it be? 

EPH: If we could suddenly be in a world where students have a lot less work, more time for socialising and are actively encouraged to do things outside of their academic studies I think we would rapidly see a decline in levels of student loneliness, as well as other mental health issues. There are of course other things that can and should be done to reduce student loneliness, but like many issues, tackling the root causes is always going to be the most effective strategy.

 NC: There are significant differences in how this shows up across the various faculties and departments. Can you speak to this?  

A graph from the recent Student Loneliness ForumCUSU/Edward Parker-Humphreys

EPH: At the undergraduate level, there seems to be a clear pattern of students in certain subjects being more likely to have friends within their Faculty/Department than others. Medicine and Veterinary Medicine are the most obvious examples of this, presumably as a result of greater interaction between students in terms of lab work, with similar patterns in Engineering. The courses that fare the worst in terms of Faculty/Department-based friendships are Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences subjects with large cohorts (e.g. HSPS, English, Law, History). I tend to think this is partly the result of fewer opportunities for social interactions within these courses, with an abundance of large lectures and potentially less small-group teaching. It’s important to note that these patterns do not necessarily mean students in these subjects are more lonely overall, simply that they are less likely to make friends through their course.

NC: What are the main challenges that COVID poses with regards to loneliness? 

EPH: Clearly social distancing is going to make it harder to provide opportunities for socialising and will restrict the number of spontaneous social interactions that students normally benefit from when walking around College or in their Faculty/Department. Finding ways to carry on providing opportunities for socialising in a way which is safe and complies with social distancing measures will be crucial in preventing an increase in student loneliness. This is going to require a lot of creative thinking and a willingness to do things a little differently – it will be important to avoid the temptation to simply move everything online.

NC: In your opinion, what aspect of the loneliness story at Cambridge are people not paying enough attention to? 

EPH: I think the way in which it affects such a broad range of people is definitely overlooked. This isn’t simply an issue of a small group of students struggling to make friends, although that is certainly part of the story. It’s a very significant number of people, many of whom have plenty of friends and do plenty of extra-curricular activities, who are dealing with regular feelings of loneliness. That’s why it’s so important to reassess the work-life balance within Cambridge for students and I think that requires structural changes in the way Cambridge is set up, as well as targeted efforts to change the culture and improve opportunities for socialising. 


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NC: What further work would you like to see done on this after your time at Cambridge?

EPH: It would be fantastic to see real progress made in relation to workload and the tutorial system. I think both of these have been talked about as issues for a long time in Cambridge without much changing, yet they are key for tackling student loneliness in my view. 

When it comes to pandemics, COVID-19 is by no means the University of Cambridge's first rodeo - by the time the black plague of 1346 rolled around, for example, the institution was already comfortably ensconced in its second century of life. When viewed from the perspective of the terra firma on which the University stands, this pandemic is therefore nothing new.  

What is, however, truly new about the current global pandemic is that it finds itself interacting with modernity. In many ways, the technological and industrial infrastructure of this modern world of ours was already nudging us towards a socially distanced culture, long before the virus jumped species in Wuhan province. The impact of the subsequent isolation measures has thus served to deeply compound a worrying and pre-existing societal trend. 

As we move towards a heavily digitised Michaelmas term unlike any other in living memory, perhaps we need to make sure that we all - students and staff alike - remain cognisant of the fact that no-one has done this before. Unlike the University itself, this is our first collective rodeo. Patience and understanding, those delicate and often rejected qualities should, therefore, be the cornerstones upon which we build our cathedrals of digital connection in this coming academic year. Let us enjoy and endure each other. 

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Mr Parker Humprey's report indicates that we should not silo ourselves because  - ironically enough - when it comes to loneliness… it would seem that we are all in this together. 

Mindfulness shows promise as an effective tool for mitigating feelings of loneliness. If you would like to see the full range of mindfulness provisions currently available at Cambridge, simply click here.