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Why Does Nobody Talk About Not Enjoying University?

In 2016, there were over 1.7 million students in undergraduate programmes at British universities.

According to the National Student Survey, in 2017 84% of responding students said they were satisfied with their course. Whilst this may be an impressive statistic that universities should rightly boast about, we tend to forget about the other 16%.

The 16% betrays the fact that for some people, for big or little reasons, university is not always a good experience.

“The positives and pleasures of university are well-documented, the downsides not so much”

Feelings of alienation, isolation, and the unsettling idea that there may be something wrong with you can be harboured underneath a smiling exterior. Why can’t I cope when everyone else can? Why can’t I be normal? Inevitably being bombarded with other peoples’ happiness at university on social media only serves to worsen these niggling emotions, which can easily escalate.

It could be that you feel homesick, shy or anxious about adapting to student life. Perhaps you’re worried about the workload, or not fitting in, or the pressure to succeed. Or maybe it’s a combination of everything. For me, it was a case of not meeting the right people until my second year.

However it starts, these are all perfectly common feelings that everyone – literally everyone – will experience on some level during their time as an undergraduate, and yet, somehow, not enjoying university has become something of a taboo subject.

The positives and pleasures of university are well-documented, the downsides not so much. But why? We’re all feeling this way, so why aren’t we willing to talk about it?

No one wants to feel like a failure.

Everyone has an expectation of what university will be like. Naturally, but unhelpfully, as soon as you start to feel like things aren’t going the way you envisaged, your first thought tends to be that the problem lies with you, that you’ve failed. You mustn’t be mature enough for university, or you mustn’t be trying hard enough.

And because you’ve not heard anyone else hint that they’re not enjoying everything about university either, you assume you’re the only one.

If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you’ve had days, weeks, maybe even an entire year where you’ve felt like you and you alone are not enjoying university anywhere near as much as you thought you would, but please know that this is absolutely not the case, and that you’re absolutely not a failure.

“We need to remember that it’s OK not to be OK”

For whatever reason it may be, feeling like you are the only one experiencing something can spark a rather dark thought process. Even now that my days of not enjoying university are behind me, I still feel ashamed to admit that I wasn’t always happy there.

Like many other students will be doing right now, I tried to keep it a secret, and there’s a part of me that is, as I write, unsettled by the knowledge that people I know will read this and discover the truth.

The “best years of your life”.

Perhaps the real issue lies with that well-meaning, but extremely damaging stereotype associated with university: that it will be the best years of your life.

You’d be hard pushed to find an undergraduate who hasn’t heard it at least once. Proud family members, university prospectuses and alumni, everyone seems to want you to know that you’re going to have an amazing time from start to finish.

“Students feel obliged to be happy”

Nobody mentions how hard it can be, how unhappy you can be, how much the reality can’t possibly meet up to such high expectations as “the best years of your life”.

So of course you don’t want to talk about it when you’ve arrived at university and you’re not, in fact, living the best years of your life, but everyone else seems like they are.

As students, we feel obliged to be happy, and so, when we’re not, we feel isolated, disappointed and withdrawn. The pressure to enjoy university because we’ve been told we should can often mean that students are not concentrating on what is important, and instead concentrating on what they might have done wrong in the quest for the universal experience that many expect of university.

Change needs to happen.

According to a study by the IPPR thinktank, record numbers of student suicides have been accompanied by increased drop-out rates related to mental health in recent years. The findings also sadly show that the rate of student suicides in the UK has been increasing (from 75 student suicides in 2007, to 134 in 2015).

The silver lining, if there is one, is that more and more students are disclosing and seeking help for mental health problems, suggesting that we are starting to realise that there’s no shame in admitting to unhappiness at university.

Students – people everywhere, in fact – need to know that they are not alone, they don’t need to feel ashamed, and they don’t need to trap themselves in a cycle of hiding and pretending. Openness is something our society lacks. We need to remember that it’s OK not be OK.

It needs to be stressed that it doesn’t always take a massive, catastrophic event to cause unhappiness, or even depression. No one should be made to feel like their unhappiness is insignificant; it is.

And to you, if you’re reading this and not enjoying university at the moment, it’s definitely not just you. As eye roll-inducing as this is to hear, it will not last forever, and you may end up enjoying your time at university, just as I did.

It doesn’t matter what end of the scale your feelings of unhappiness are at, nor the cause of your unhappiness; you should never be ashamed, and you should always share it with someone.

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