In 2020 and 2021, amid successive lockdowns that aimed to stop the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, conversations have been taking place up and down the country about university students’ wellbeing, isolation and loneliness. Concern about this has been particularly acute at the beginnings of lockdowns and also at Christmas, when many students faced the holidays alone in student flats and dorm rooms.
All students have been vulnerable to loneliness and isolation, but care leavers and students who are estranged from their families are particularly at risk.
And when the sector has conversations about student loneliness in the context of Covid-19, it is important to remember that for care experienced and estranged students, the vacations have always been a potentially worrying time. While some students are able to go home to their families this year after spending last year alone, students without family homes to go back to may be alone on campus again.
In London, with its high numbers of young people in care and density of higher education providers, this is a particular issue.
There is the obvious issue of accommodation (already under pressure in London). Many university accommodation contracts are based around the assumption that students have families to go back to during vacations. If you have left care or are not in contact with your family, then you have a much lower chance of having this. This causes some students to be at risk of homelessness during the holidays.
Higher education institutions are increasingly aware of this, and many offer 365 day accommodation and bursaries to students who are at risk of not having anywhere to go during the holidays.
But once accommodation is sorted and we have ensured that students will have somewhere warm and secure to live over the holidays, how much is there left to do?
The answer is often quite a lot. Whether students celebrate Christmas themselves or not, being alone at a time of year when nights are long and so many of your peers are celebrating holidays with their families can be isolating and depressing. Knowing you’ll have to answer questions about how your vacation was and why you didn’t see family can be stressful emotionally, and if your mental health is impacted by the loneliness, this can have knock on effects on your work and social life in January.
Looking around at the support available to these students in London and beyond this winter, it is clear that many institutions and charities in this space are working hard on providing support that meets all these emotional as well as logistical needs.
Become, a charity working with children in care and young care leavers, will have its advice line open during much of the festive period when other university support services might be closed or harder to access, and will host virtual hangouts for young people who want to engage in social events virtually. Some of these are Christmas themed for students who might not get other opportunities to take part in festive activities.
Universities across the capital, including Brunel and Kingston through its KU Cares programme, will be providing social events to keep students in company and entertained and make sure they aren’t lonely. NNECL (the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers) suggests that universities consider sending Christmas cards to students who will be alone and celebrate the holiday, creating a sense of belonging and reminding them they are part of a community that values their presence, even when campus is empty.
If you are interested in learning more about what different institutions are doing to care for their care leavers and estranged students over the winter vacation, take a look at the Propel website and see the incredible range of types of support on offer in British universities and further education providers. It takes a lot of hard work on many fronts to make the winter vacation rewarding and enjoyable for more students. While there is always more there is possible to do, London’s support teams are demonstrating their commitment to the job.