More than a third of first-year students in England who started university this autumn have shown symptoms of depression and anxiety, a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests.
Almost two in five (38%) new students surveyed said they felt unprepared for studying at university because of the loss of face-to-face learning as a result of the Covid pandemic.
Asked how they felt over the previous two weeks, 37% showed “moderate to severe symptoms of depression” and 39% showed signs of “likely having some form of anxiety”. Responses from 27% of students suggested they may have an eating disorder, according to the ONS.
While more than 40% said their mental health had improved since the start of the autumn term, 23% said their mental health or wellbeing was “slightly or much worse”.
The survey also found that their satisfaction with life was significantly lower than that of the general adult population, at 6.6 out of 10 compared with 7.1, though similar to the general student population at 6.5.
The ONS cautioned that the statistics were “experimental”, based on a relatively small sample of about 2,000 first- and foundation-year students in English universities who were invited to take part via email.
A total of 43% said their mental health had got “much or slightly better” since the beginning of term, compared with 32% of all higher education students.
The survey also asked students about their Covid vaccination status, with nine in 10 saying they had received at least one jab..
Asked about online learning, 40% of students said they wanted face-to-face lessons only, while more than half said they would prefer blended learning in the future, with a mix of face-to-face and online lectures or seminars. Just 5% wanted online-only lessons.
Tim Gibbs, the head of the student Covid-19 insights survey, said the impact that Covid had had on students’ mental health was clear and needed to continue to be monitored.
The universities minister, Michelle Donelan, giving evidence to MPs on the Commons education committee on Wednesday, said student mental health was a priority for the government and that getting students back on campus and into classrooms, learning face-to-face rather than online, was key to wellbeing.
The government has said it expects universities to offer face-to-face teaching on campus now Covid restrictions have been lifted, but many universities have said they will continue to offer some element of online learning, usually lectures.
The minister told MPs universities should not use online learning as “a cost-cutting exercise” and is writing to vice-chancellors this week to ensure any online provision for students does not “devalue education”.