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Those applying to higher education are more anxious than ever. What can we do to tackle the problem?

  • 22 July 2022
  • By Jenny Shaw

Today’s blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Jenny Shaw, HE External Engagement Director at Unite Students.

Students are anxious. 

This was one of the key findings of the Advance HE / HEPI 2022 Student Experience Survey, but one that may not immediately stand out against the other headline findings.

It isn’t just a student thing. Those of us who live with teenagers may well be aware of how prevalent anxiety is among young people, and the impact it has had on their lives throughout and beyond the pandemic.

Published today, our new Applicant Index survey sheds further light on anxiety and wider mental health issues among the incoming cohort, and the figures are very stark. 20% of the cohort report that they have a mental health condition, of which anxiety is by far the most common. Moreover, 49% of all applicants say they have experienced anxiety as a mental health condition during the last two years.

We have also been tracking applicant anxiety using the Office for National Statistics’ Wellbeing Indicators since 2019. The percentage reporting ‘Low Anxiety’ (the lowest two categories on the 11-point scale) has declined from 25% in 2019 to just 14% this year, with the biggest fall between last year and this.

Some groups of applicants are more affected by others. Female applicants are more anxious than male (57% v 36%) but those who are trans, non-binary or express their gender in another way are the most anxious at 72%. Other groups with higher than average levels of anxiety include LGB+ applicants (64%), care experienced (58%) and estranged (61%) applicants.

About half of applicants (49%) are anxious that they won’t fit in at university. This rises to 63% among LGB+ applicants and 64% among applicants with a mental health condition – both of which, by the way, constitute a larger percentage of the applicant population than ever before. 

While some level of anxiety is normal and can even be helpful, anxiety disorders such as phobias, panic disorders or generalised anxiety disorder can be distressing and disruptive to daily life. The impacts of anxiety on student life can include academic underperformance, difficulties with peer relationships, lower life satisfaction and poor physical health.

All of this will be known to Student Support teams already, but if the trend continues I suggest that it warrants a higher profile in institutional and even national policy. An increasingly anxious student body raises a wide range of questions:

  • How does anxiety fluctuate throughout the student journey?
  • Are there administrative or academic processes that exacerbate anxiety for all or some students, or even those that cause it?
  • How much academic challenge is the ‘right’ amount, and how are individual needs recognised and accommodated within this?
  • Is university an inclusive environment for students with an anxiety disorder?

And finally:

  • What are the scalable, therapeutic approaches to anxiety that would be most effective for today’s students?

When I look back, I realise that student anxiety is something we’ve been responding to over a few years in terms of student accommodation, and especially when it comes to making the transition to moving away from home. It has informed features in our app, such as creating chatrooms for future flatmates to meet before arrival, it has changed the way we approach pre-arrival communications and it even sparked the Leapskills programme that helps applicants prepare to live in a student community.

Now it looks as though we need to move away from just addressing specific areas of anxiety, and look at student anxiety more broadly.

Over the coming years, we hope to repeat our Applicant Index survey and provide ongoing tracking of anxiety levels among incoming students. In the best case scenario we will find that it has been a temporary effect created by COVID, but if not it’s something that we will all need to address in the years to come.

1 comment

  1. Paul Gibbs says:

    I just wondered how these figures compare to the general population facing unemployment living with parents and potentially, if we believe the rhetoric, less secure futures than new undergraduates. Answers to the anxiety of all our youth might offer a better point to begin action

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