Quarter of uni applicants ‘have experienced issues with eating or an eating disorder’ – survey

The survey of 1,000 university applicants also suggested they feel less prepared for university than their antecedents

Nearly a quarter of university applicants polled by Youthsight have experienced issues with eating or an eating disorder in the last year – a 30% increase on the figure recorded four years ago.

The findings of the survey of 1,000 17- and 18-year-old university applicants commissioned by Unite Students, the largest UK student accommodation provider, are a “significant concern” to the organisation’s chief executive. Twenty four per cent of the respondents reported an issue with eating or an eating disorder – up from 18% in 2017.

The survey found that 15% of respondents said that they have a mental health condition: 88% said they have anxiety, 11% post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 15% obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Nearly six in 10 (59%) are worried about fitting in – and a ‘sense of belonging’ matters to 92% of those polled.

This year’s cohort may feel less prepared for undergraduate life, survey results imply: just 36% feel ready for university, down from 45% in 2017, and only 20% feel well-informed, down from 33% in 2017. Perhaps unsurprisingly – after a Student Academic Experience Survey of this year’s undergraduates revealed that returning cohorts want face-to-face teaching prioritised – the majority (66%) of applicants would prefer a different face-to-face mode of learning to online lectures.

Fewer applicants surveyed this year appear to have consumed either ‘excessive’ amounts of alcohol or drugs – although the reasons behind this are unclear. Some commentators have dubbed Generation Z ‘puritans’ after some isolated surveys in the last decade emerged to suggest they were less likely to drink than previous generations. However, socialising has been disrupted by lockdowns across the UK, likely affecting the figures. Eleven per cent said that they drank “too much” in the last year, compared to 18% in 2017, and 5% said they had consumed illegal drugs in 2020/21, compared to 10% in 2017.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “This survey confirms that it is a very tough time to be young. University applicants have shown extraordinary resilience over the past year when their education has been seriously disrupted.

“While we can see a negative impact on their wellbeing, we can also see they are absolutely determined to continue their educational journeys and to make the most of their potential. I worry that people will arrive in higher education less well prepared than their predecessors, but I am also confident that they can thrive if they are given the support they need.”

“These findings are a useful insight into the incoming student population,” said Richard Smith, chief executive at Unite Students. “The increased number of university applicants experiencing eating disorders and other mental health issues is an obvious concern, and something all who work in higher education – including universities themselves, accommodation providers and campus staff – need to keep front of mind.

“At Unite Students, we are focused on building a community for students where they feel they belong and have a solid support system. We are working hard to further enhance and develop the support we already have in place to help students. This is a priority as we look to the new academic year.”

Read more: Students still fear disclosing mental health conditions – Ucas

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