Building belonging a year on – how has higher education changed?

A year since Wonkhe and Pearson launched research on student belonging, David Gilani takes stock of the impact it has had across the sector

David Gilani is Head of Student Engagement and Advocacy at Middlesex University

One year ago, Wonkhe and Pearson launched their Building Belonging in Higher Education report, which kick-started a sector-wide conversation.

Where did the conversation go next after the launch event? Has it really led to tangible improvements in terms of delivery for students? And where can we go next with this concept across our work within higher education?

It could have been predicted that belonging would become a focus in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, with increasing concerns about isolation, loneliness and a lack of connection between students and their universities.

Whilst this increased interest had been seen in more published research on student belonging in recent years, it has been pretty much everywhere within the last twelve months,

Graph showing student belonging articles included within a 2023 literature review, ordered by year of publication rapidly rising after 2022

Figure 1 – student belonging articles included within a 2023 literature review, ordered by year of publication.

An ongoing conversation

Those at the Building Belonging launch event may remember the buzz in the Zoom chat, as attendees all resonated with this concept of belonging and saw how it could connect disparate aspects of our work around student experience and success.

Since then, conversations at a sector level have been kept alive by focusing on belonging at various other events and conferences. Just last month, the Researching, Advancing and Inspiring Student Engagement Network (RAISE) held its annual conference, entirely dedicating the event to student belonging. This allowed a great mixture of practitioners, researchers and student representatives to connect this theme together.

Between such larger events, we’ve also seen a springing up of communities of practice and cross-institutional research groups. Whether you are working on practical efforts to build belonging amongst students, interrogating the concept from an academic perspective – or both – there are now more opportunities than ever before to connect with others in these endeavours (talking ‘bout staff belonging, right?!).

Any change in practice?

But has this changed anything in practice. We asked a few folks involved in this work around the sector to get their thoughts.

Anna Jackson, Head of Customer Insights at Pearson, and one of the authors of the original Building Belonging research report, said:

I know there are universities that have already made building student belonging their mantra, but it’s hard to know whether it is being embedded across the whole university or just happening in pockets. What is encouraging is that plenty of people have reached out asking for more details of the research to align with their own projects.

And through her role as Director of Educational Engagement at the University of Leeds, Louise Banahene has been reflecting on the role of belonging from a university-wide perspective:

I’ve seen a heightened awareness of understanding the importance of belonging alongside a recognition that mattering and feeling valued are important, alternative ways to frame thinking. At Leeds it’s at the heart of our Access and Student Success strategy and we’ve taken an evidence-informed approach undertaking research led by staff and students to understand across everything from interactive pedagogies, impact of physical environment to online learning. It has stimulated reflection on research methodologies, how we measure belonging amongst cohorts and collaborating with institutions across the sector on this has reinforced how much we are all working on this and learning together.

For anyone researching the topic of student belonging, I’d recommend signing up to the cross-institutional belonging research methodologies group that Louise has instigated.

To support institutions with practical work to embed belonging practice, AdvanceHE set up a Building Belonging programme, which – based off of the Pearson/Wonkhe report – is now in its second cohort. We asked Kate Lister, Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Arden University and Co-lead of the Advance HE Building Belonging programme, to give her thoughts:

In my work for Advance HE, I’ve seen a lot of progression in the sector in the last year. I’m seeing universities becoming much more aware of the sense of belonging as a mainstream concept that underpins mental wellbeing, student retention, inclusion, decolonisation, and many other strategic enhancement activities. I’m seeing universities becoming much more cognisant of the multi-faceted nature of belonging, that it’s not something that can be owned by a single department or team, that it requires partnerships across academic and professional units, and between staff and students. In the Advance HE collaborative projects, I’m seeing a vast array of incredibly creative projects and initiatives that aim to enhance student belonging, that universities are really stepping up and taking action to build belonging. And while it’s too early to say if these are leading to real, sustainable benefits for students, I feel confident that, despite all the challenges in the sector right now, we’re moving in the right direction. It’s a brilliant testament to how much UKHE staff really care about their students, and it’s wonderful to be a part of this work.

Understanding wider challenges

Student belonging does not have to be seen as a new set of additional activities and deliverables within our student experience work. Indeed, within the original Building Belonging report, the term “lens” was used purposefully in this regard. As Kate articulates brilliantly above, belonging can be a lens for us to think about how topical issues will affect our students, and indeed, we have seen it be used this way over the last year.

Belonging has been closely linked to work around students’ mental health, including how we address the increasing prevalence of loneliness amongst students. Many articles have been published on Wonkhe connecting student belonging to the welcome experience, the awarding gap, student accommodation and staff experiences of belonging too (I told you I was talking ’bout staff belonging!)

From my own perspective as a staff governor at Middlesex University, I have seen how the student belonging lexicon has provided a way to better connect how we talk about key Office for Students measures, such as continuation, with the updates from our students’ union officers about rebuilding student communities following the pandemic.

Are we making a difference?

One of the biggest concerns that I often hear about belonging is whether the term is becoming overused and thus, ultimately, meaningless. Whilst I certainly think that there will be examples where the term is used a bit too indiscriminately, often to mean anything vaguely connected to the student experience, the best way that we can ensure it retains utility is through effective evaluation of efforts to enhance student belonging. In this area, the sector has developed a lot in the last year.

Whilst we certainly suffered some setbacks in comparable data through the loss of the learning community questions in the NSS, other evaluation efforts have stepped in to fill this void. Harriet Dunbar-Morris from the University of Portsmouth has worked with Evasys and colleagues around the sector to develop a Being, Belonging and Becoming survey, which is being piloted this year at a number of institutions. Further cross-sector research into belonging is also taking place through the U-belong project, led by Nicola Byrom from King’s College London. TASO has also developed and validated a set of belonging scales that can be used in evaluation efforts.

Beyond these more quantitative methods for evaluating students’ sense of belonging – and whether interventions have positively affected this – there has also been a continued flourishing of innovative qualitative methodologies used in research around the sector. There are many different examples of these, but one of my favourites is the use of photography methodologies to capture campus spaces that foster belonging.

Opportunities ahead

There is something about this topic that has undeniably resonated with a broad array of higher education staff and inspired us. And, as someone researching and developing practice into student belonging, it has been an incredible year.

I hope that in the years to come, we will continue to unpick this messy construct, finding the right balance between maintaining nuance and academic rigour while also making a practical difference for our students where we can.

We will have to wait and see whether belonging as a popular concept in higher education stands the test of time like “widening participation”, pops its head up every now and again like “sticky campus”, gets debunked as inaccurate like “learning styles”, or just fades into obscurity like “ultra-curricular” (although, come to think of it I don’t think ultra-curricular was ever actually a thing!). My guess and hope is that it’ll be the first – but we’ll just have to wait and see.

For those reading this article who see how belonging can either link to your research or practice, I would strongly encourage you to join the communities of practice, research groups, events and projects linked within this article. We still have a lot to work out on this topic, so we need your help.

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