Loneliness among university students: Is it worse in Australia?

I think Adele Horin has a point below.  My undergraduate years were in the '60s and I had an exceptionally a good time in campus politics at that time.  Being one of the few outspoken conservatives on campus in the Vietnam era was immensely entertaining.  But what I enjoyed most was my time in one of the university's army units.  So I was the complete counterformist.  Donning an army uniform when most of the campus was scared stiff of being drafted into the army was real defiance.  And I could tell of other adventures ....

Rather to my regret, however, my own son in his undergraduate years was rather like those Adele Horin describes below: Sticking to his studies and his old school friends.  Fortunately, however, he has now moved interstate to do his Ph.D. and he seems to be having there the sort of fun I would wish for him.  In his undergraduate years I kept telling him that your time at university is a time for having fun so I am glad he has finally realized it

Having just read the latest American literary sensation, The Art of Fielding, about college baseball, I am struck once again at the deep emotional connection young Americans feel towards their university; for the American college student the years between 18 and 22 are seminal when new friendships are forged and campus experiences can be life-changing.

It could not be more different from the narrow, often lonely and alienating experience of going to university in Australia.

This week, new figures showed record numbers of students from migrant, indigenous and otherwise hard-up backgrounds are going to university.

But I could not help wonder how these students will fare without a pack - or a pair - of high school mates as a ballast against loneliness.

Some parents once feared university might corrupt their darlings by bringing them into contact with strange and subversive elements. But nowadays parents are more inclined to worry that university is not the broadening and enlivening experience it once was.

The old school tie is more important than ever. Many young people cling to their high school friends for dear life as they progress through the university years, barely making a new acquaintance.

So big and inhospitable are campuses, so large are the numbers in tutorials, so depleted are university clubs, and so pervasive are the changes in life outside the campus that the university experience has become less vital, interesting and social for many students.

A few years ago the mother of a gorgeous and vivacious young woman from Sydney's north shore - now a journalist - revealed how friendless her daughter found university. The only sources of welcome and cheer were the campus Christian clubs that unsurprisingly had gained a huge following. If this young woman with bountiful social skills found university a bit lonely what hope do the shy, awkward and socially disadvantaged have?

My assertions are based on observations over the past five years of a group of young people still making their way through university and backed by three research reports since 2005 charting the engagement - and disengagement - experience of thousands of students.

To give credit where it is due, the universities are keenly aware that student disengagement is a major issue that needs to be addressed. But a lot of the forces causing the alienation are outside the universities' control.

The First Year Experiences in Australian Universities report, which traced changes from 1994 to 2009, found only half the students in 2009 felt a sense of belonging to their university and one-quarter had not made a friend - a significant worsening from previous years. As well, there had been a significant decline in the proportion that felt confident that at least one teacher knew their name.

Decreasing proportions participated through university sports, clubs or societies, and, of course, students spent less time on campus than in the past, and the less time they spent, the less they felt they belonged.

The report also points to improvements in student satisfaction with the quality of teaching, and enjoyment of courses. Academically, life is better.

If university is a less exciting and social place than it used to be for many, it is partly because students are holding down jobs, on average 13 hours a week, and not just to pay for ski trips. Another report, "Studying and Working", which looked at student finances and engagement, found many were in financial hardship and 14 per cent sometimes could not afford to eat.

The decline in shared houses due to soaring rents is another reason for the diminution of university experience. Thinking back, it was the network of shared houses that linked students into a constant party in the long-ago 1970s that made the era so vivid. Living with mum and dad will not be so memorable.

And then there's Facebook. Stephen Marche, writing in The Atlantic, posed the question "Is Facebook making us lonely?" If you use it to make arrangements to meet friends it is an asset. But when Facebook - and online interactive games - become a substitute for meeting people then it robs students of the richness and complexity of real relationships.

That is what makes Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding so fascinating. It is a novel, at heart, about the deep and complex relationships forged at university, with the central character being a shy, awkward and socially disadvantaged young man.

The American system is entirely different from ours, propelling students across the continent to reside at college. It is enormously wasteful. Students and parents rack up huge debts to pay for tuition and board when often perfectly good institutions of higher learning are in their home town.

But it does have the advantage of expanding student horizons and friendship networks, and of imparting a thrilling edge to the university experience, and a deep attachment to the institution.

For the 40,203 students from low socio-economic postcodes who started university this year, the opportunity is priceless. Previous research shows such students have more clarity of purpose, study more consistently and skip fewer classes. But they are also less likely to make friends or like being a university student.

Young people are lucky in so many ways with a world of connection and information at their finger tips. But the university experience seems less special and more impersonal than it used to be, and that's a pity.


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