A new Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Policy Note authored by Dr Richard Vytniorgu, Student belonging and the wider context provides valuable insight and recommendations into ways that higher education professionals can foster a greater sense of belonging among students in the UK. Based on research that included student interviews, the Policy Note stresses the importance of not falling into the trap of attributing students’ sense of belonging to personality quirks, but rather taking the time to understand the social and cultural dimensions of belonging.

A key finding of the research is that a student’s sense of belonging at university is connected with their feelings of belonging in the wider world, yet traditionally, approaches in higher education have often taken a narrower focus on belonging only in the context of being a university student.

Promoting opportunities for students to engage with, and actively contribute to their local community is one of five policy recommendations outlined in the HEPI Policy Note. This is because residential students, in particular, are “often frustrated at the lack of opportunity to connect with local communities beyond their institution or campus … it can be important to form a robust social life that might extend beyond institutional affiliation, extending into the wider community”.

The Policy Note also emphasises that the physical environment plays a key role in promoting feelings of belonging or exclusion:

“students repeatedly emphasised the way in which physical surroundings communicate ideas about who spaces are intended for, or how much institutions valued people based on how they design and arrange their environments.”

Mature-age students are one group noted as being vulnerable to feeling excluded in spaces – for example, those featuring overly contemporary designs and large open spaces, highlighting the importance of consulting with a broad range of students when designing new buildings.

Finally, providing opportunities for staff and students to connect with each other in a way that emphasises their common ground rather than highlighting differences is also critical in promoting belonging, with the research highlighting that this extends to “finding ways to emphasise and celebrate shared use of physical space”.

Dr Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI notes the important connection between belonging and wellbeing, and notes that “the payoffs in terms of students satisfaction, lower drop-out rates and improved learning could be enormous” for those who invest time in tackling this issue. Read more at HEPI.