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What is 'Belonging' and Why Does it Matter?

By Ben Hunt, Sector Insights Lead / 06 December 2023

A crowd of people

What is 'Belonging'?

‘The magic of belonging is to understand and respect its complexity. Belongings become multiple, sensual, affective experiences’ (Ajjawi et al, 11). (1)

Much has been published in higher education regarding belonging, as highlighted in a blog from David Gilani at Middlesex University. (2) Discussions about belonging have been catalysed by the increase in loneliness students experienced during the COVID pandemic. Loneliness has been linked to negative mental health outcomes, and conversely, as strong sense of belonging can reduce feelings of loneliness. The Office of National Statistics found that 26% of students felt lonely often or always, compared with 8% of the general adult population, and as such, is more prevalent amongst students. (3) Belonging is therefore a fundamental consideration for the sector as we collectively seek ways to improve the mental health of students.

This article outlines issues relating to defining belonging, explains why belonging is important and highlights the work Strive Higher has done to foster belonging in practice. Building belonging involves listening to and understanding students and their ways of relating in context, as students curate: ‘safe spaces for belonging in highly personalised ways’ (Ajjawai et al, 9). It is important for universities in their work on belonging to take a ‘bottom-up’ approach, partnering with students to foster meaningful connections. 

Belonging in Theory

Robertson et al. in their 2019 Quality Assurance Agency Report defined belonging as one of the intangible assets of higher education, namely, positive things that cannot be easily measured or quantified. (4) Belonging has been defined in a variety of ways. One common definition is Goodenow’s (1993), which defines belonging as 'the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included and supported by others' in a university’s social environment. (5) In a 2022 report, Wonkhe and Pearson described belonging as ‘…seen as a vague and indefinable concept’. (6)

Positive feelings of belonging have been associated with:  

  • Better mental health outcomes 

  • Enhanced student engagement  

  • Enhanced student outcomes  

  • Feelings of confidence and resilience

Why is Belonging Important in Higher Education?

Belonging is beneficial at different stages of the higher education journey:  

  • Getting in: it has been argued that fostering student belonging is fundamental to the successful transition and integration of students into university. From Meehan and Howell’s qualitative survey of 530 student transitions to university, it was argued that:  ‘Students with a strong sense of ‘connection’ with people, the environment and the subject they are studying are more likely to feel like they belong’. (7) The study also argued that ‘‘being, belonging and becoming’ were important in particular within the first few months and within the first year of university’. (8)

  • Getting on: a recent literature review found several different foundations of belonging, including social capital, on/off campus connection, ethnic group fit and cohesion and social exclusion. In fostering belonging, it was argued that: ‘…belonging is a multidimensional experience that interweaves many aspects of our being in our social world’. (9) It is widely recognised that belonging supports student retention and a positive student experience.  

  • Getting out: Student belonging has been linked to positive outcomes. In a 2015 report to the then regulator for higher education, HEFCE, it was summarised that: ‘Students’ sense of ‘belonging’ emerged as a key cause of differential progression’. (10)

Belonging in Practice

With the issues in quantifying belonging, Robertson et al. encourage each institution to ‘…generate their own intangible assets rather than engaging them in discussions on a pre-prepared list’. (11) It is important to co-create such lists as belonging is subjective and dependent on different contextual and institutional variables: ‘Ultimately…the value of our intangible assets comes from our context (for example, who we are, what we believe) and cannot be meaningfully associated with fixed measures’. (12)


Strive Higher recently put the idea of belonging as an intangible asset into practice. We worked with the University of Nottingham to create a student hub on one of their campuses. The key aim was to foster belonging amongst students through integrating services more closely with them at different stages of their journey.      

Within this project, we:  

  • Identified the ‘intangible asset’ for the campus, in this case, student belonging and how this connected to the provision of services and student spaces.  

  • After this, we facilitated several workshops with service leads for the campus to identify a common set of ambition statements related to the student experience across different domains of belonging.

  • Created a maturity framework, containing different descriptions of how belonging felt to students from our engagement with student representatives and students across two faculties.  

  • Validated these descriptions with a further student workshop to ensure a sufficiently accurate understanding of the student experiences was applied to measuring success over time.  

  • Recommended ways of conceptualising belonging over time and measuring the maturity framework, including: local surveys, collaborative workshops with students over time and utilising ‘sentiment buttons’.   

Flow chart depicting belonging as an intangible asset

[Image: Belonging as an intangible asset]

Our work with students to understand their experiences of belonging gave the university a concrete way of measuring and improving a sense of belonging across their campus. Through understanding belonging in its localised context and collaborating with students to construct maturity measures, belonging can be measured and enhanced. 

What Can the Sector Gain from Fostering Belonging?

Benefits of reflecting on belonging for higher education include: 

  • Reductions in student loneliness and improvements in their mental health 

  • Improvements to student support provision and services 

  • Enhanced prioritisation for staff in their role and focus  

  • Improvements to student satisfaction, engagement, retention and outcomes.  

If you’re interested in having a conversation with us about improving belonging at your university, get in touch.  

You can also find out more about the belonging project described herein by reading the case study on our work with the University of Nottingham here.


(8) Ibid

(12) Ibid


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