The prospect of completing a degree is, for the many legions of students investing vast sums in university every year, not the primary selling point. For many, the allure of the ‘university experience’ and its promise of huge social growth holds as much weight, if not more, as the degree itself. The idea of university as the ‘golden years’ of our existence is pervasive. 

The often unaddressed, yet ubiquitous, notion of the ‘golden years’ is sustained through the circulation of anecdotes from parents’ wistful reminiscences to continued cultural affirmations. The pressures of an idealised university experience increasingly result from the prevalent highlight reels posted to social media, inevitably leading to comparison between one’s own university experience and the way their peers present their own on social media.

Books, television, and film also nurture this concept. Take Marianne in Normal People for example: a serious, bookish outcast who flourishes at university. Her bookishness is reframed as worldliness, positioning her as cultured and magnetic as she holds court with a newfound sense of self-worth.

However, in reality university can be a deeply isolating and lonely experience. Whilst Marianne triumphs, Connell lives a solitary university existence: an acute contrast to his school years spent at the height of social hierarchies. The factors which might qualify a move to university as being those which form the basis of it being the ‘golden years’ also provide the perfect breeding ground for a rapid decline in mental health, and huge bouts of depression and anxiety. Pre-pandemic figures of student mental health have been rising at an alarming rate. In 2019, 87.7% of students said they struggled with anxiety – a third said they struggled with loneliness. 

University is overwhelming, at the best of times. Students navigate a concoction of new challenges for the first time; financial worries, structureless days with minimal contact hours, while simultaneously trying to forge relationships and support networks to mimic those left at home.

It is deeply concerning to consider how these figures have been exacerbated by the pandemic. A survey by Mind showed that during the first lockdown, nearly 73% of students said that their mental health had declined. Lured back to campus for Autumn term by universities’ promises of face-to-face teaching which never came to fruition, statistics recorded during this term have proven similarly disheartening. A report by NUS released in December cited loneliness as a major contributing factor to such a mental health decline. 

Plunged into another lockdown, with no indication of when they can return and with universities skirting around calls for a no-detriment policy, many students question the point in returning at all. The minimal academic value gained from ‘zoom university’ begs the question of what students are actually paying for. With no prospects of academic or social growth in the term ahead, what are students really getting for their thousands of pounds?

The statistics simply don’t add up: is student life really the prime of our lives? It’s time to demystify this pervasive rhetoric. Debunking the idea that this time should be the golden years of our lives is essential for preserving students’ sanity and minimising the ramifications of this turbulent period on a generation of students.