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Leadership for Belonging in Higher Education

  • 24 November 2022
  • By Sara Spear

This blog was written by Professor Sara Spear, Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law at St Mary’s UniversityIt is the tenth in our series on leadership in partnership with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE).

The ‘Building Belonging in Higher Education’ report by Wonkhe and Pearson emphasised the need for institution-wide approaches to developing student belonging, proposing ‘connection, inclusion, support and autonomy’ as the foundational principles of belonging. Although the report focused on students, the authors also noted that staff commitment to building student belonging is likely to be influenced by their own experience of belonging. There is extensive research on the associations between belonging and mental health and wellbeing, highlighting its importance at a time when staff wellbeing is a high priority for higher education leaders. We can therefore consider how the foundations of student belonging may also help us in understanding and fostering staff belonging.


Connections between team members, managers, and colleagues in the wider institution depend on communication and interpersonal relationships. New approaches to working following the COVID-19 pandemicoffer both challenges and opportunities for building connections. Remote working makes for fewer spontaneous meetings in corridors or over coffee breaks, but widespread use of video platforms such as Teams and Zoom have made connections across distance easier. Colleagues on different campuses, in different countries, and even in different time zones can join virtual meetings easier and more frequently than in person. For leaders, the channel of communication should be of secondary importance to the quality of communication. Leaders can ensure that there are opportunities for all team members to engage in group settings and share their views. This can involve using meetings for discussion and agreeing actions rather than reciting papers, allowing space for reflection and comment, and using the chat functions on video calls or turn-taking in face-to-face meetings to make space for all voices. Leaders can also demonstrate the value of personal connections by making time in meetings and their own diaries for checking in on how people are feeling and sharing their own stories. These strategies help communication go beyond the purely transactional mode that can leave people cold. 


The much cited statistic that only one per cent of UK professors are Black (see data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency) illustrates that despite commitments to race equality across the sector, many students and staff in higher education will not see themselves reflected at senior levels. Tensions are rife around the casualisation of higher education and increasing numbers of staff on precarious contracts, and, according to the University and College Union (UCU), these issues affect Black and minority ethnic academics to a greater extent than their white counterparts. Leaders can ensure that staff sitting on recruitment and promotion panels have been trained to recognise the unconscious biases that can adversely impact these groups, and that panels themselves are appropriately diverse. Increasing awareness of neurodiversity and the benefits of having a neurodiverse team requires leaders to consider practices that are inclusive for everyone, such as breaks in long meetings. This also requires thought when designing physical spaces, particularly as some institutions move to open plan offices for all staff, in order to provide enough quiet spaces and spaces with adjustable lighting and heating. Alongside issues of equality and diversity, longstanding divisions between academic and professional services staff, teaching and research staff, and traditional and practitioner academics, can lead to some groups and individuals feeling less valued within an institution. Leaders can break down these barriers by modelling collaboration and promoting connection between groups, and by demonstrating how multi-disciplinary and cross-functional working is essential to meeting student needs and other stakeholder demands.


For many of us, the pandemic deepened the intersections between home and work. We can learn from this period to become more compassionate leaders, appreciating the complex and varied personal circumstances and needs of our teams. Leaders should demonstrate that they care about people as individuals, and about their future career aspirations as well as their performance in their current role. Support for staff can take many forms, from bursaries towards continuing professional development activity to signposting employee assistance programmes. The cost of living crisis means that universities are thinking seriously about how to best support staff and students facing food shortages and fuel poverty, for example with food banks and warm spaces on campus. In addition to specific support initiatives, leaders can offer team members more flexibility in their work by focusing less on inputs (such as hours spent in the office and meetings attended) and more on outcomes (such as student success, graduate employability, and research impact). This approach will enable people to work in the way that best suits their personal circumstances, while still delivering according to the institution’s priorities.


Financial and market pressures, which frequently lead to course closures and squeezed research time, threaten the autonomy of academics to teach and research in the areas they feel passionately about. At the same time, restructures and cost-cutting exercises affect academic and professional services staff alike and can leave staff feeling vulnerable and resentful. Leaders have to balance the needs of the institution, including the financial imperatives for long-term survival, with the freedom and space for innovation and creativity needed in a thriving higher education environment. Advance HE’s ‘Leadership in Global Higher Education’report advocates for a values-based leadership approach as a way of developing a sense of shared purpose across a diverse staff community. A values-based approach can go some way to reconciling these tensions by establishing which activities and ways of working are in line with the institution’s values and purpose, and targeting resources towards them. A leader’s attitude towards risk and failure is also crucial – providing people with the freedom to try new ideas, fail fast, and learn from mistakes without blame or recrimination, fosters innovation and creates an environment where people feel trusted and supported.

Overall, viewing staff and student belonging as interconnected and mutually reinforcing is essential to support belonging across both staff and student communities. Acting as leaders in a way that will foster belonging is vital in order to deliver on sector-wide imperatives, and also recognises, and seeks to fulfil, the deep human need for belonging in us all. 

The series so far:

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