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Postgraduate Plight: dwindling happiness, mental health and optimism raises concern for students pursuing advanced degrees

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  • Less than half of postgraduate students say they are happy (43 per cent), a six per cent decrease from 2022
  • In a survey among all university students, optimism for the future dropped the most amongst postgraduates, down to just 37 per cent
  • Almost half (47 per cent) say they will need to take on additional debts to complete their studies
  • A third say they had felt lonely most or all of the time and 51 per cent fear their mental health will worsen in the next 12 months
  • The annual Student Happiness Index report from Endsleigh Insurance analyses student optimism and wellbeing    

Over the past year, postgraduate student happiness and wellbeing has declined, whilst undergraduate student happiness improved over the same period, a new report released by Endsleigh Insurance reveals.

The Student Happiness Index*, undertaken by Endsleigh Insurance, is a specialist original research project which delves into the concerns of undergraduates and postgraduates across the UK, and today marks the release of its third edition. It has revealed a concerning downward trajectory in postgraduate student happiness, optimism and overall wellbeing when compared with other cohorts.

In 2022, almost half (49 per cent) of postgraduates said they felt happy at university, which dropped to 43 per cent in 2023, while undergraduate student happiness levels increased over the same period.

A similar trend can be seen when students were asked about how optimistic they felt about life after university, with figures dropping most amongst postgraduate students, from 49 per cent in 2022 to 37 per cent in 2023. In addition, when asked how much they were enjoying their university experience compared to what they expected, the research revealed a significant drop in postgraduates from 48 per cent to 39 per cent.

Financial burden and pressure of postgraduate studies is the greatest concern

The 2023 report confirms that personal finance is the top concern for postgraduate students, with almost half (43 per cent) worried about the rising cost of living. This could partly be attributed to the greater financial investment and self-funding required for further educational studies, as well as fewer financial support options from universities.

As a result, more than half (54 per cent) of postgraduate students have had to take on a part time job in the last 12 months and a further third say they will take one on in the next year. Some are also taking on debts beyond their student loan, with 47 per cent of postgraduate students saying they will take out a credit card or overdraft to continue their studies. This figure represents a marked increase, from 34 per cent in the 2022 report.

The investment in postgraduate study has also left many fearing for the financial stability of their future, with more than half (54 per cent) concerned about their level of student debt and 65 per cent feeling unprepared financially for life after their studies. 

The knock-on effect of financial struggles has meant that 51 per cent have been socialising less in order to save any surplus money for essentials and 47 per cent have spent less time following their passions.

Beatrice Hughes, Eco-linguistics PhD student at the University of Gloucestershire said:

There is a significant shortcoming in financial support for postgraduate students – especially those in the arts. Funding at a PhD level is a huge issue, my student loan pays tuition fees to write my thesis, but undertaking the additional research required is becoming near-impossible. These financial pressures have made me consider whether I should pause or stop studying altogether.”

Mental health struggles are rising significantly, and only predicted to worsen

Lack of socialising and little sense of community in postgraduate life has meant that a third of postgraduate students say they have felt lonely most or all of the time. The report also revealed an increase in the amount of students who said their mental health had worsened over the past 12 months (33 per cent), with a third also seeking specialist mental health support to help them manage their concerns. This is a trend which looks set to continue, with more than half (51 per cent) anxious that their mental health will worsen in the next 12 months (versus 45 per cent of undergraduates).

There are a number of issues impacting postgraduate mental health. 46 per cent say they are struggling to balance paid work, family life and time-intensive research-led projects. In some cases, the research revealed that students were considering pausing their studies, or at the point where they felt no longer able to finish their degrees. 

Anastasiia Perov, Computer Science Masters Student at City University London said:

My existing mental health issues have been worsened by the uncertainty and the feeling that I am not in control of my life caused by studying at time when universities are severely affected by strikes. During my second term, half of my seminars were cancelled, but I had huge deadlines looming. I felt overwhelmed, lost and worried about failure, so I turned to a psychologist for mental health support. Studying a one-year master’s degree is a big personal time, energy and financial investment, and with extremely limited time to complete modules, the pressure can become almost unbearable.” 

Alison Meckiffe, CEO, Endsleigh Insurance, said:

The third edition of our annual report shows a concerning trend as happiness and mental health worsens for postgraduate students. The cost-of-living crisis, coupled with the pressure to achieve academic success is creating a difficult situation for those in further study and the research results reflect this.

This could have implications for the wider education sector, and beyond, if we see a significant decline in the number of people choosing to study at a postgraduate level.”

Endsleigh’s Student Assistance Programme which is currently providing mental health support to more than one million students in universities, college and schools provides 24/7 wellbeing support to students who may find themselves in a situation of financial hardship. The programme also supports students with a wide range of other issues such as stress and anxiety, relationship, accommodation, addiction, and legal concerns.

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