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What does it mean to become a student in higher education?

Great work is being done on student belonging but Ben Jackson and Tom Lowe ask if are we expecting students to develop their sense of belonging on our terms?
This article is more than 1 year old

Tom Lowe is the Chair of the RAISE Network and a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Portsmouth.

Ben Jackson is the Business Analyst in the Knowledge and Digital Services department at the University of Winchester.

As the start of another academic year rolls around, thousands of prospective students will be taking their first steps into the daunting world of higher education.

There is no shortage of literature on the importance of the initial transition into university, and a great deal of attention has been paid to the concept of ‘belonging’ in recent years. Numerous studies have evidenced the link between students’ sense of belonging and student retention and outcomes, and two recent Wonkhe articles from Gail Capper and Debbie McVitty and Anna Jackson and Sunday Blake­ have explored the component parts of belonging a little further.

There is also the idea that for students to develop a sense of belonging, they must do more than simply adapt to their new unfamiliar environment. As Jim Dickinson argues, they also “need to become something new themselves – a student in higher education” – perhaps a sentiment shared by the University of Winchester, which has launched the place to become campaign.

However, with only a short period of time for students to make the most of orientation and welcome weeks before they are plunged into the world of academia, are we expecting students to develop their sense of belonging too quickly and on our terms?

New identities

Before prospective students can begin to adopt their new identities as “students in higher education”, they must first navigate the process of disengaging from their pre-university identities. They must, as William Bridges notes “determine what is over and being left behind, and what they will keep”. This may include saying goodbye to friends and parting from whatever activities, routines, and people, filled their day-to-day lives up until that point.

Freshers Week certainly provides its fair share of disorientating and isolating moments for students: those first few hours after arriving where students suddenly realise that they don’t know who anyone is or where anything is. And these identity crises have a cruel habit of reappearing at the least expected moments throughout the first terms and beyond. Travelling home may now involve spending hours on public transport, and those old school friends may now be hundreds of miles away; also trying to adjust to their new identities and perhaps finding new friends themselves. Such moments can be unsettling and cause students to question their newly found identities, which in turn damages their sense of belonging to their HE provider.

We must also consider how this idolised sense of belonging may very quickly turn into a sense of alienation when the lived university experience falls short of the students’ expectations, or the brilliant time they may have been promised by parents or staff at open days fails to materialise. Adrian Chiles recently commented on this in The Guardian:

If, two or three weeks in, you’re having a miserable time, or even just an OK time, you might well conclude there’s something wrong with you: you’re not cut out for it; you’re not as popular as you thought you were; and so on.

Such feelings are only natural and could even be considered an unavoidable part of the transition into higher education. Perhaps students may feel less alienated by these experiences if only they realised thousands of other students are in the same situation, united through a shared experience.

Unfortunately, such important transitions in life do not come with a defined ending point. There is nothing which marks the completion of a student’s transition into higher education, and nor will there be a moment of epiphany in which a student realises that they have become a student in higher education.

What does it mean to become?

In considering what phrases such as “becoming a student in higher education” or slogans such as “the place to become” may actually mean, we should be mindful to ensure that students are allowed to ‘become’ on their own terms.

To some, this notion of becoming may imply that students must re-invent themselves in order to succeed. This infers that there is perhaps a criterion which must be met to “become a student in higher education”, and that the identities, experiences, and knowledge, students bring with them in the transition into higher education are not of value.

With 43 per cent of students experiencing the imposter phenomenon at some point during their studies, this indicates that there is a large group of students who feel they are undeserving of the identity of a student in higher education or that they may never feel that they truly ‘become’.

…You don’t really deserve to be here, and that it’s only a matter of time before the people around you realise this too – if they haven’t already.

(UCL 2021).

It is also of no surprise that the imposter phenomenon has a higher prevalence amongst minority students, as they find themselves subjected to epistemic injustices, and are more likely to experience social exclusion. The concerning prevalence of racism and sexism on many university campuses has a lot to answer for here.

There is also a risk that this rhetoric around becoming suggests that students become at university and then cease to develop further in their future lives; that the university rite of passage is the final passage. Of course, we know this to be incorrect as our current students will be graduates with careers, and will play many roles in society throughout their life from graduates to professionals, and possibly to parents and teachers themselves.

This time [at university] has been for laying foundations. We go to university so the next bit can be even better … keep being brave, be kind, be you.

(Alex Wedlock, 2019, Bath Spa Graduation Ceremony)

We should be forgiving of those moments of identity crises and stop pretending that a single week of orientation activities is all that is required for students to belong. Let us allow students to come as they are and value and validate the experiences and knowledge that they bring with them. Our role is to provide the nurturing environment they need to become whatever they want in their own time and on their own terms.

3 responses to “What does it mean to become a student in higher education?

  1. Thank you Tom and Ben for a great think piece. It reminds me of the importance for HE institutions to focus work on an inclusive community and culture that can support unlimited diversity, for students to be free to explore identity and belonging on their own terms, in a larger context (the city, the world). There’s more to life than university.

    I wonder, how important the concept of “being a student” really is. Perhaps, it is a barrier in itself, and we can make the university community more inclusive by encouraging, to a higher extent, “non-students” to join and co-create learning experiences. #wideningparticipation #lifelonglearning

  2. I echo the comment above that this is a great think piece. It resonates beautifully with ‘possible selves’ literature (see SRHE volume by Henderson et al.) and also with career identity theory (e.g., pre-professional identity).

  3. What I don’t understand is why most of the commentary on belonging only really starts at enrolment or freshers week. What about the application and Admissions processes? Surely belonging begins at the point a (potential) applicant decides to start to apply? Something (however small) has happened that suggests they might belong. During a successful Admissions journey, the sense of belonging should gradually increase, and this is what should drive the best applicant to student conversion rates.

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