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The Heart of the Matter: Student Loneliness and Belonging

  • 10 February 2023
  • By Louise Banahene and Jon Down
  • This blog was contributed by Louise Banahene (PFHEA) MBE, Director of Educational Engagement at the University of Leeds, and Jon Down, Director of Development at Grit Breakthrough Programmes. Grit delivers intensive personal development and coaching programmes in universities across the UK.

Of the findings from the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey for 2022 it was that nearly one-in-four students feel lonely ‘all’ or ‘most’ of the time. This is one of a growing number of reports on loneliness experienced by students. During the pandemic, the Office for National Statistics reported that 26% of students felt lonely often or always, compared with 8% of the adult population while, back in March 2022 it found that students are significantly more likely to say they are lonely than the general population

Loneliness is intrinsically connected to belonging. The UPP Foundation Student Futures Manifesto described how it is by building community and a sense of belonging that loneliness can be tackled. The link between belonging and student success is well established. As Anna Jackson wrote on the HEPI blog, ‘this “sense of belonging” while at university can make or break students’ overall experience and success.’

That’s why the University of Leeds has placed belonging at the centre of our Access and Student Success strategy. Our students must feel that we are valued and that we can establish connections in order to thrive and learn. 

In the first instance, this can be shaped by absence of friendships or networks. Kaamla had just started her first year at Leeds:

I was lost. I was all over the place. I didn’t know what to do. Meeting new people, making new friends, was the hardest thing.

But it’s not just about making friends or building networks. All the polling and our own institutional research tells us that what students valued most during the pandemic was meaningful connection with staff communities and research by Pearson linked the quality of students’ relationships with academics to the improvement of students’ feelings of inclusion

The research and practice at Leeds has evidenced the impact of changing the systems and the environment and it’s where we focus much of our work. In many cases, it’s redesigning for those students who are least likely to feel they belong but all benefit from the changes. However, there are often debates around the extent to which interventions should help students adapt to the university environment and the extent to which universities should adapt to students.   

Lived experience and individual circumstances shape belonging and that’s why it is so important to address systemic inequalities by changing processes and policies that disadvantage students from particular backgrounds. But we must accept that this vital work doesn’t happen overnight. While we wait for structures and systems to catch up, we have to create spaces where students can share lived experiences and build connections themselves. We have seen the impact that our Plus Programme has and it’s why we value the Grit Programme.

Grit creates the space to understand and value individual stories and experiences. It offers students a rigorously supportive AND challenging space to reflect on who they are and the unique contribution they have to offer. 

Students come to appreciate who they are and who they want to be. They get clarity about what is really possible for their university experience, and that sense of self-efficacy and self-belief that they can achieve it. As a student on a Grit programme recently put it:

By understanding what has made me, the experiences that have formed me, the resilience that has got me through, I realised my value. I’ve got new ways of thinking about myself.

Grit creates the space to enable our students to share and normalise their feelings while building or re-building new connections. Its group coaching approach generates a supportive and self-sustaining community – a launchpad for making friends and growing networks. 

Kaamla describes how:

There was a real connection in the group. Before I thought it was just me but in the workshop I saw that everyone else was feeling the same. We were all lonely and finding it difficult to make new friends. And none of us were speaking to anyone else about how we felt. It was such a relief!

And Grit enables us to work with students to reframe the way they think about support so that they see it as more than just a lifeline in a crisis and, instead, as more about gathering what you need to be a success. They come to view it as a positive resource to build around themselves, not a sign of weakness that they reach for when they’re at their lowest ebb.

Aleena had just started her first year at Leeds when she did a one-day Grit workshop:

I feel like I’ve made life-long friends through Grit. After the workshop six of us set up a group chat called ‘Accountability’ where talk about worries, the stresses of university life. We chat every week. We set goals every week. And we hold each other accountable for achieving our goals.

It’s a great example of why we, in the academy, must prioritise interacting through relationships and acknowledge the limitations of the transactional (the imparting of information, argument and knowledge) in engaging with students.

Loneliness and belonging are affected by relationship more than anything else and it is through relationship that we can support students to find their own way through. This lies at the heart of Grit’s coaching approach and why it is such a good fit with the way we think about Access and Student Success at Leeds.


  1. A practical solution: teach and assess students through groupwork. Instead of individual essay assessments, get groups of students to work together and submit a group report on a joint practical project. I teach classes of 550+ students and cannot give individual attention to each student, but group assignments give students a sense of belonging and also cut my marking workload!

  2. Perry Share says:

    The increasing tendency of both staff and students to WFH is definitely having an impact on the development of all sorts of relationships in HE. How do we recreate the sense of community without the commonality of space?

  3. I agree that “what students valued most was meaningful connection with staff ” and “the quality of students’ relationships with academics”. But it is hard to build personal connections when teaching and assessing large u/g and p/g classes with hundreds of students. So it is vital that managers in Universities address the crisis in academic staff workload, which has led to class sizes of hundreds and failure to retain and recruit academic staff in popular disciplines. We should not need UCU industrial action to persuade senior management to manage academic staff workload better.

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