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To encourage a sense of belonging among students, avoid excessive focus on identity differences and increase engagement with local communities

  • 17 November 2022
  • By Dr Richard Vytniorgu

A new Policy Note published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Student belonging and the wider context (Policy Note 39, attached) by Dr Richard Vytniorgu, uses structured interviews with students to explore the sense of belonging among students.

The Policy Note shows students’ sense of belonging in their higher education institution is best situated in the context of students’ sense of belonging in the wider world. Too often, student belonging in higher education is evaluated as an isolated phenomenon, specific to being a student. But students’ attitudes to belonging at university or college correlate with their attitudes to belonging more generally.

This correlation is borne out in two notable areas:

  • While students welcome diversity of staff and students, they caution more generally against excessive emphasis on identity differences among people at the expense of finding common ground that can bring people with different backgrounds together.
  • Residential students can often be frustrated at the lack of opportunity to connect with local communities beyond their institution or campus. They recognise that the experience of home can be found anywhere, but that it can be important to form a robust social life that might extend beyond institutional affiliation, extending into the wider community.

Dr Vytniorgu, the author of the paper, said:

While student belonging is increasingly prominent in policy, too often it is considered as an isolated phenomenon without any reference to students’ broader ideas about what it means to belong in the wider world. This report suggests some ways in which belonging in higher education might be viewed in relation to belonging more generally.

I hope it will encourage higher education policymakers to consider how pro-belonging policies can impact and promote students’ sense of belonging in the wider world.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

There are few things in life as important for personal wellbeing as feeling like you belong. This is already much more widely recognised than it used to be, but we still need to do more work to understand how to inculcate a sense of belonging, including among students.

At the moment, young people in particular often feel squeezed out by society, which tends to look and feel like it is often more interested in the needs of older people than those on the cusp of independent adulthood.

This is not an easy thing for educational institutions to tackle, given constrained resources and the welcome increase in diversity among the student body, yet the payoffs in terms of student satisfaction, lower drop-out rates and improved learning could be enormous.

Mary Curnock Cook CBE, Chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and a HEPI Trustee, said:

The UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission’s work laid bare the unseen ravages of the pandemic which diminished students’ confidence in their academic studies and their personal and professional relationships.

The powerful benefits experienced by students working closely with university leaders during COVID led to our central recommendation of a Student Futures Manifesto, co-created and co-produced by students and staff.

Students told us that a more affiliative, networked and social approach to relationships between staff and students was key to feeling they were valued which in turn enhanced their feelings of belonging.

The report, which is partly a response to recent events where student mental health and wellbeing do not seem to have had the priority they deserve, includes five policy recommendations. These are aimed at helping higher education professionals consider how to foster a deeper sense of belonging among their students:

  1. Avoid reducing student belonging to a quirk of individual students and recognise instead that students emphasise the social, cultural, and environmental dimensions of belonging.
  2. Work with students and staff to identify areas of common ground – Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion policies should be wary of highlighting divisions among students at the expense of student cohesion in academic and co-curricular activities.
  3. Facilitate deeper connections between students and local communities to help students feel more ‘at home’ where they live and to encourage them to contribute to a larger community beyond their institution.
  4. Identify the cultural messages of the physical environment because students know that physical surroundings communicate ideas about who spaces are for and how much institutions value different people. 
  5. Co-create pro-belonging policies at a local rather than centralised level – for example, within departments or, if working with university-wide services (such as student mental health and wellbeing), in tandem with a departmental lead for student experience. 

This research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund Award and carried out at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, University of Exeter. 

2 comments

  1. Denis Blight AO says:

    We need a HEPI in Australia. It can be left to individual universities nor to peak bodies or think tanks engaged in wider issues.

  2. Andrew Abraham says:

    This report seems to fail to acknowledge the fact that many students coming to university struggle with belonging simply because they lack the willingness to take up opportunities to belong. This is where our biggest gap in knowledge exists. Why don’t they take up the opportunity? Apathy, indifference, lack of social skills, deliberately choose not to engage because they don’t want to, work, travel (even short distances), competing opportunities, prior experience of education, beliefs about education (especially that which costs in the long run). We just don’t know. Equally, we don’t know how this changes from university to university (I note this is only a very small Russell group sample), course to course, entry qualification type to entry qualification type.

    We do many of the things recommended in this report yet still struggle to create a sense of belonging. It is a frustrating conundrum.

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