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London students’ happiness – why it matters

3 April 2023

London is home to half a million of the UK’s students, and more than 10 universities have opened up London campuses to make the most of the capital’s appeal to both domestic and international students.

In March, London Higher launched a new report into students’ experience in London – finding that they are the UK’s happiest students. Jenny Shaw, HE External Engagement Director at Unite Students, summarises some key findings from the report, and what the wider sector can learn from looking at London’s student body.


On Tuesday 14th March, we were proud to host the launch of the new report ‘Living and Learning in London’ at our newest London property, Hayloft Point. This 920-bed development contains the remains of the Boar’s Head Theatre, one of London’s oldest theatrical sites. As well as housing students from around the world it provides a much-needed long-term home for Streets of Growth, a charity working with vulnerable young people from local communities. Such a mix of old and new, local and global, is perhaps the perfect metaphor for London itself.

London students are distinct from the wider UK student population. We knew this back in the 90s when I started my career at a London institution, but we didn’t then have the benefits of the Advance HE and HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey. Nor did we have the sector body London Higher in its current form. Between them they have brought a level of clarity to the London student experience, and now we know exactly how they are different: they are older, more diverse, more international – and overall they are happier, which no-one was expecting.


What we learned about the London student body

The report was largely produced by students themselves; the author, Emily Dixon, is a postgraduate student, and the data was analysed by a team of students from City University – you can see some of them talking about their student experience here.

Introducing the report, London Higher’s CEO Diana Beech pointed out that London is a unique market for higher education. It has one of the greatest concentrations of HE institutions in the world and half a million students, of which one third are international – and yet it also has more students from its home region than any other part of the UK, a mix that she described as creating a ‘hyperdiverse’ student body. In addition to being happier than students from other regions, London students are also more likely to think the experience has exceeded their expectations compared to other regions.

She also predicted that London will quickly feel the growth in student numbers predicted by UCAS’s Journey to a Million campaign, which Unite Students is sponsoring. It’s not surprising then that there has been a recent rise in the number of universities opening up a London campus, adding to the diversity of the sector.

Nick Hillman pulled out some further nuances of the London student experience. Life satisfaction is higher among London students and they are more likely to have a positive value-for-money perception, which may be down to their expectations and financial preparedness. In fact, they have the second highest value-for-money perception of any region, eclipsed only by Scotland.


A diverse population, with diverse university experiences

Being part of such a vast and diverse student body has both positive and negative connotations for the students themselves. Black students feel positive about the diversity of the students around them – something we’ve heard consistently through our Living Black at University Commission – but at the same time they are significantly less likely to rate their course as value for money than White students, and the reasons for this are likely to be complex.

The data also shows that London students are both more and less lonely than those in other parts of the UK. In other words, there is a wider range of scores with peaks at both ends, demonstrating that there is no single ‘London student experience’ but a diversity of experiences. Again, Black students fare worse with the highest levels of loneliness of any ethnic group.

A highlight of the launch event was hearing directly from the report’s author Emily Dixon, who talked not only about the research itself but her own current experience as a postgraduate student in London. And this was one of the key take-aways for me: always put the student voice and the front and centre.


What other regions can learn from the report

There is a real power to being able to break down data to regional level – what might you discover about the students in your region? It’s a great opportunity to better understand your student body, tailor student services as required, and potentially identify a hidden gem for marketing to university applicants.

The good news is that the data is available to produce a similar report for other English regions and the devolved administrations. It’s publicly available from Advance HE and HEPI who run the Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) every year. This opens up opportunities for regional groups in the student accommodation sector who may want more of a regional deep-dive into student needs and attitudes – just a thought!


London Higher’s CEO, Diana Beech, wrote a guest blog in 2022 looking at the UK’s postgraduate population – you can read it on our website now.

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