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Establishing a sense of belonging at University

Author: Dr Susan Smith and Dr Sarah Watson

Published: 23 Jun 2022

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There has been an increased focus on establishing a sense of belonging for students across the Higher Education (HE) sector in recent times, partly accelerated by the dislocation experienced by students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belonging is typically associated with students being accepted for who they are. A sense of belonging is integral to student retention, progression and outcomes at University. A differential sense of belonging between student demographics has the capacity to exacerbate degree awarding gaps e.g. ethnicity, gender etc.

We have been working on a comparative research study at the University of Sussex Business School with finalist students (2022 graduating cohort) studying Business and Management subjects. The aim was to investigate students’ feelings of belonging as contributors to the persistent international awarding gap identified between the % of home students and international students achieving so-called good degrees (firsts and 2.1s) (Smith, 2020). In 2020/21 the gap was 10% (HESA, 2022).

Awarding gaps are important matters for investigation, as the UK government has already met its target of 600,000 international students 10 years early (HESA, 2022) and seeks to increase the number of international students studying at UK Higher Education Institutions further.

Our comparative research study focused on students in the Business and Management subjects as most degrees are awarded within this discipline. We grouped students into ‘home’ and ‘China-domiciled’ to reflect the fact that Chinese students comprise the largest group of international students in Business and Management subjects, comprising 52% of total international students. The qualitative study interviewed a total of 42 students, asking questions related to belonging at the Business School. The interviewees were from diverse backgrounds, including students who had undertaken a Foundation year, a professional placement, first generation students, commuter students, disabled students, mature students, international students and students who had joined directly into the second year through a transfer of credits agreement. Whilst we were previously aware of the diversity of student experiences in the cohort, the interviews foregrounded this aspect.

The study adds to prior findings related to the importance of four dimensions of belonging (Ahn & Davis, 2020), namely academic, social, physical surroundings, and personal by highlighting the strong influence of physical surroundings on academic confidence (Bartolic et al., 2022). It extended prior understandings of belonging to include digital belonging, a facet of belonging that was accentuated during the pandemic drawing attention to the barriers experienced by Chinese students in adopting Western social media platforms (often illegal in their home country) where significant communication took place e.g. Facebook for student societies.

To establish a true sense of belonging it is important that universities recognise the diversity of their cohorts and tailor their offer accordingly, rather than catering to conceptions of the ‘ideal student’ (Cotton et al., 2016). The research also highlighted the dynamic nature of belonging over the duration of a student’s studies (Strayhorn, 2018). It manifested itself in many ways with interviewee’s often experiencing a lack of social belonging arising from the online learning environment and the dislocation related to the pandemic, others reported that the physical sense of belonging that arose from living on campus in the first year, which weakened as students moved into the local town in subsequent years of study.

Although this study was limited to our Business School, we believe it reported common feelings of belonging for students across the sector. As classroom educators we can influence feelings of academic and social belonging and some practical suggestions include:

  • Engage in a continual transition process to ensure that the full cohort has the same understanding of the expectations of the relevant stage of study
  • Recognise that as a result of the varied paths through degrees students may not know each other at the outset of your module or course, so establish an environment where students can start to make connections with each other
  • Offer alternative means of engaging in class, beyond asking students to talk in front of their peers. The use of collaborative documents, polling tools, and chat functions and help relieve pressure felt by both demographics of students with regards to speaking in front of their peers.
  • Make time for students to ask questions at the end of a teaching session, as students can perceive barriers related to the formality of emailing staff. This was particularly the case for our Chinese interviewees.
  • Ensure that the curriculum reflects the student base of your institution and draws on the rich experiences of the cohort
  • If using social media in your teaching, ensure all students have access and feel confident using the platform
*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.


Ahn, M. Y., & Davis, H. H. (2020). Four domains of students’ sense of belonging to university. Studies in Higher Education, 45(3), 622–634. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2018.1564902

Bartolic, S., Matzat, U., Tai, J., Burgess, J.-L., Boud, D., Craig, H., Archibald, A., De Jaeger, A., Kaplan-Rakowski, R., Lutze-Mann, L., Polly, P., Roth, M., Heap, T., Agapito, J., & Guppy, N. (2022). Student vulnerabilities and confidence in learning in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies in Higher Education, 0(0), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2022.2081679

Cotton, D. R. E., Joyner, M., George, R., & Cotton, P. A. (2016). Understanding the gender and ethnicity attainment gap in UK higher education. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 53(5), 475–486. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2015.1013145

HESA. (2022). Where students come from and go to study (2020/21) (SB262). https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/25-01-2022/sb262-higher-education-student-statistics/location
Smith, S. (2020). What about me? International student attainment in UK higher education. HEPI. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/02/20/what-about-me-international-student-attainment-in-uk-higher-education/

Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College Students’ Sense of Belonging (2nd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315297293