Nightline's listening legacy

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Nightline50: Our Listening Legacy

In 2020, our 50th anniversary year, we think it is important to recognise Nightline’s listening legacy and maintain momentum as we look to our future.

One night in early 1970, three students were talking in the ground floor flat of one of Essex University’s domineering tower blocks. They heard sirens go past – an ambulance and a police car – which they thought was probably a response to a student in need. In the conversation that followed they recognised how much of an emotional desert those evenings could be for students, and wondered whether there was a different way of providing support. Their idea – for peer support offered over the phone at night – grew and became an international movement that is now about to enter its sixth decade.

With the support of Essex University Chaplain, the Reverend Malcolm France, Essex University professor and Samaritans volunteer Geoffrey Hosking and Samaritans Founder Chad Varah, the first group of Nightline volunteers were trained in the principles of active listening and empathy. Later that term, on 7 May 1970, and in a disused hut on the edge of the university grounds, Essex Nightline offered its services for the first time. Three days later they took their first call, and within a year the Nightline concept had been replicated at Imperial College London. By 1972 nine Nightlines had opened across the country.

Today, Nightline Association has 39 affiliated services across the UK and Republic of Ireland. Between them, Nightline services cover 120 Higher Education institutions and give 1.6 million students access to confidential listening support through the night when other services are usually closed. There are also several Nightline-inspired services across Europe, the USA and Canada.

Many student concerns have remained constant since that first night in 1970 – Nightline volunteers still offer support in areas such as academic stress, relationships, loneliness, sexual violence, addiction, self-harm and suicidal feelings – but Nightline has also continuously adapted its approach according to the changing social, political and physical landscape, meaning it remains relevant and incredibly effective 50 years on.

Since the 1990s Nightlines have offered support via email, and in 2007 Nightline pioneered the introduction of Instant Messaging as a contact method. These readily accessible options broaden our reach and ensure that more people are comfortable reaching out to our services. More recently, and in light of the Covid-19 crisis, these digital contact methods have allowed Nightline services to continue offering remote and agile support to students.

Since 1972, Nightlines across the country have gathered every year for a national conference. Our annual Spring Conference is a staple of the Nightline calendar and offers volunteers and service coordinators the opportunity to meet, learn and share best practice. This year, our (suddenly virtual) conference theme was ‘sustainability’. We are proud to build on the legacy of all those volunteers who came before us and will continue to serve students and the higher education sector for decades to come.

The landscape of university student support is ever-changing, and we are constantly trying to find the best balance between services that offer help to all and those that are suited to individual needs. Consequently, Nightline is always looking to work in closer partnership with student-focused services to ensure that university students have access to a full spectrum of holistic support. Nightline is not the full solution, but we are certainly an important part of the overall package available at universities.

We are delighted to be chosen as the THE Awards charity partner for 2020, and excited to celebrate our listening legacy alongside Times Higher Education. By doing so, we hope we can increase awareness within the higher education community of the vital services we offer to students.

Finally, we would like to honour the thousands of volunteers who have contributed to Nightline over the past 50 years – they are the reason we have been so effective for so long, and as the volume of calls increases, we will need many more as we grow and develop to support future generations of students in need.

You can find out more about Nightline50 at and follow our ‘Humans of Nightline’ campaign on social media: