Student belonging – more than a buzzword?
Student belonging is the Higher Education’s current hot topic – but what does it all mean for accommodation?
In the first episode of a new series of Accommodation Matters, Jenny Shaw hosts a panel of experts to weigh in on what their research and experience has shown about students feeling a sense of belonging in their accommodation, how inclusion and wellbeing intersect with that sense of belonging, and how student accommodation practitioners can facilitate a community in which students feel they belong.
This month’s panel features:
- Yvonne Turnbull, Director of Student Advice and Wellbeing at Liverpool John Moores University
- Tom White, Co-Founder and CEO at WAU Agency
- Luke McCrone, Postdoctoral Researcher at Imperial College London
Listen to the episode below.
Episode transcript: Student belonging – more than a buzzword?
Jenny Shaw: Sense of belonging has been a key policy issue in higher education since 2012 when it arose as a key idea in the What Works? Student Retention & Success research. It’s not a new idea, but there has been a renewed interest in belonging since the pandemic and it’s been proposed as a contributor to student mental health, as well as to retention and success.
That being the case, sense of belonging has attracted further research with national and local studies underway, two of which are featured on today’s show. It’s not just about policymakers and practitioners – this is something that’s important to students themselves. In our own applicant index survey last summer, 80% of applicants agreed that they would like to feel as though they belong when they’re at university.
What does this mean for student accommodation both conceptually and practically? To help me answer this question, I’ve got three experts with me in the studio today. Yvonne Turnbull is director of Student Advice and Wellbeing at Liverpool John Moores University. Tom White is the co-founder and CEO of WAU Agency. Luke McCrone is a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London and a hall warden.
Luke, you’ve done some research into belonging at Imperial College, and you’ve found out quite a lot relating directly to student accommodation – it sounds like it starts at the point of arrival or perhaps before. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Luke McCrone: Yes, I’ve been involved with the Belonging, Engagement and Community Project at Imperial College, which is now in its fourth year. The project has received to date over 850 responses, and we’ve interviewed 45 students from all levels of study. Many of whom are undergraduates who, at some point, have been in halls of residence. The relatively open questioning which we adopt in interview has meant that several participants have volunteered information about halls of residence in relation to their sense of belonging.
Most students are moving from family homes all over the world and when they come to university, they’re desperately seeking this new home environment where they can feel safe, welcomed, and comfortable. The impression we make on students right from arrival day as warden teams really can set quite an important precedent for how they engage with the hall throughout the year.
Part of our job, as I see it at least, is as custodians of the institution who minimise the uncertainty and misinformation which students experience when they first arrive. Small things like answering questions when they collect their room keys to us delivering a welcome talk can really reduce initial anxiety and support a smooth transition into the hall environment.
Jenny: I was really interested in how the distinction between academic space and living space has broken down since the pandemic. That was quite interesting.
Luke: With the natural shift to more remote learning, it’s meant that living spaces have rapidly transitioned to learning spaces for degree courses, which now even embrace hybrid modes of delivery or give students the freedom to engage with that material remotely. The shift has really prevailed since the pandemic.
This has, firstly, meant that students’ use of hall spaces has changed and that their needs in halls have also changed, and secondly, that we find our role as wardens gradually shifting in this type of support that we’re providing for students to support more academic issues, such as providing tips and resources for things like time management.
These changing student needs have also been experienced by supervisor teams and building managers. A good recent example of that is them receiving requests from students who, for example, want to change routine heating hours because students are spending more time in halls in the daytime versus on campus. We’ve also had, interestingly, students expressing more appetite for connecting with fellow students from their departments than we’ve ever had before.
Just finally on the topic of the pandemic, I just want to say that navigating COVID was very difficult as a warden because we found ourselves having to balance a dual role – firstly, as guardians of COVID rules and discipline, but also at the same time trying to maintain a level of support for student welfare and wellbeing. It really revealed to us how much we perhaps took for granted the sources of help that wardens provide for students.
Jenny: How did that go? I know that that was quite a common issue in student accommodation across the UK, that boundary during COVID, between that conduct side of things and then that community side of things. How did you navigate that?
Luke: Yes, it’s very difficult. I think the best way we could really navigate it was in our teams trying to be strategic in terms of certain members playing more of the sort of disciplinary bad cop, and then other members trying to be more sort of approachable for students. I think, ultimately, to come back to my point, it was really difficult to try to navigate both of those roles. Students simply perceived us as the bad guys rather than people that they could approach when they were experiencing issues of wellbeing. Trust me, those were increased throughout the pandemic because of social isolation.
Tom White: Has that changed now, Luke?
Luke: It has changed, Tom. Because we’ve been able to retrieve our initial role of more sort of the pastoral care role rather than disciplinarians. It’s massively shifted.
Jenny: What plans have you got going forward informed by the research?
Luke: I think the research has really taught us some of the initiatives in halls that are successful in building community, or rather reaffirmed what those initiatives are. We have something called a Hall Community Fund where we put on events for students and it’s really forced me to reflect, as an individual warden, the types of events which bring students together effectively.
I think it’s a lot about pulling on a diverse event programme, so trying to appeal to a number of different students, whether that’s board game nights or our recent Valentine’s party – where love really was in the air! – to international food competitions, where students can spend time together in kitchens and really build a sense of community at the level of the floor or the whole house.
It’s forcing us to reflect on the types of events we’re putting on for students. It’s also forcing us to re-evaluate our role as wardens and the role that we are playing in supporting as an academic environment, not just as a living environment.
Jenny: Thank you. Yvonne, I’d like to come to you. You’ve got a large and diverse student body at Liverpool John Moores. What does belonging mean to your students and, in particular, what does it mean for their wellbeing and their mental health?
Yvonne Turnbull: Oh, that’s a huge question, Jenny. I’d like to just pick up on Luke’s comments around the pandemic. Having come from a situation where belonging and isolation were the two big themes during the pandemic, where we saw huge numbers of students who were isolated, who didn’t have that sense of belonging because we weren’t able to develop that, having come from that very severe position. We’ve been able to bring students back onto campus in the last 12 months or so and really developed that sense of belonging.
The issues that came through around mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic we know are going to be with us for many years. I think some of the research that’s currently coming out is saying that in the next decade we will see that impact. We’ll have students coming through from schools who have been really impacted by that social isolation piece. Developing belonging is really, really critical in making sure that students can engage effectively and get through university and achieve the award that they are coming to us for because, ultimately, that is the aim, isn’t it?
All the bits that we provide, all the accommodation pieces, and the other pieces of support are all intended to support that individual to come out at the end with the award which they wanted to get when they started with us. Maintaining positive health and wellbeing is really, really critical. Just as the pandemic hit, we went into a restructure here at LJMU around how we formed our accommodation team. We changed from simply an accommodation team into an accommodation and student living team because that student living piece was so important.
It wasn’t driven by the pandemic because it was about to happen anyway, but it’s proven to be the right step at the right time. Getting students to develop that sense of belonging and knowing that they’ve got connections with people from the very first day that they step onto campus is critical. If you walk into a new environment and you don’t know anybody and you haven’t got those connections, your first reaction might be to run. It’s so hard, isn’t it? You’ve left home, you’ve come away to university, and you don’t know anybody, and there’s nobody there that you feel that you’re connected to. Developing that sense of connection is absolutely critical.
Jenny: What are your teams doing, Yvonne, to develop those connections for students – or help them to develop their own connections when they arrive?
Yvonne: We have a whole range of activities that we produce, but we also co-produce with the students union. Certainly this year we’ve seen membership of clubs and societies go through the roof in the way that we’ve not seen since before the pandemic. I mean, accommodation is really important but there are also other intersectionalities in here, aren’t there? Joining a club or society and also being able to bring that into your accommodation is really, really important.
We’re currently in the middle of our wellbeing month, ‘Feel Fab Feb’ [laughs], which is running across the entire campus and into our halls as well. That’s really important in encouraging people to look after their health and wellbeing, but also do it with other people and to develop that strong sense that they found their tribe. We talk about finding your tribe, don’t we? University, I think, is a really critical time for doing that and making sure that you can connect with other people.
Jenny: I know that you work with a number of accommodation partners. What are your expectations for them in terms of creating a sense of belonging for your students?
Yvonne: Very high expectations. [laughs] We expect them to do what we would. We are somewhat unique, although not entirely unique, in not owning any of our own halls – so we do rely on our partners. We have very strong links with all of our providers. The accommodation or student living team work extensively with those providers to make sure that the culture and the ethos that we have, or that we want to have, on campus is replicated in those halls.
We have activities going on all the way through the year. Certainly, at the beginning of the year, there’s a lot of activity going on to welcome students in. Those departments that would ordinarily just interact on campus often go into the halls as well. Even though they’re not owned by us, they go into the halls and deliver services.
Jenny: Thanks, Yvonne. Tom, I’m going to come to you now, because you run a fairly new scheme called Investor in Students, and you’re working with a number of universities and accommodation providers. How important is belonging to the teams and the students that you’re working with?
Tom: I’d say it’s one of the highest priorities, not just from an accommodation perspective, but up the chain that is, like you’ve outlined at the beginning and Luke and Yvonne have talked and spoken about it. It’s becoming more important, I think, in what we’re seeing – certainly from a university perspective.
We have 10 university members enrolled in Investor in Students now. What we’re seeing is that sense of belonging is actually being looked at in a more holistic way, where I think in the past, the sector has perhaps divided the experience for students into their academic and non-academic experiences and it’s almost like, “Well, these are the learning bits you do, and these are the living bits you do.”
Whereas the current that we’re picking up from a lot of our members, if they’re starting to look at this in a more symbiotic way, is actually that the overall holistic offering has to be all in the same. That for somebody to succeed academically, they need to be happy at home, and their home is more than likely going to be student accommodation.
Then it feeds into some of that wider stuff that you talked about, Yvonne – we know a lot of universities, particularly Russell Group universities, are looking in a lot of detail at their sports offering. Sports engenders a huge amount of sense of belonging. People become very tribal about the teams that they follow and support. American colleges are masters of this. If you look at the sales of university merchandise in America versus the UK, it would be ridiculous, because sports sits at the heart of that.
Accommodation is a huge part of it and seems to be getting more noise around the table for a lot of our university members, in terms of its stakeholder position, and its ability to create a sense of belonging. Aside from things like sport, the overall campus experience being looked at into one big picture of overall student experience. Rather than, “Here’s how we perform academically; here’s what our living experience is,” it’s putting the whole thing together and saying, “No, this is why you should come and study here.”
I’d say, in answer to your question, it’s very important and I think it’s becoming more important as people try to understand how you blend everything that we have at our disposal to create a better experience.
Jenny: I think that’s a really good point that students don’t necessarily see these distinctions between what different departments offer. It’s a student experience, isn’t it?
Tom: It is. I’d say our private operators are also really interested in sense of belonging as well. They come at it from a slightly different angle, which, on the face of it, you could say is a bit more commercial because what they’re all pushing towards is around brand loyalty and brand recognition. Actually, that sense of belonging comes from a place of, “What’s our unique experience that you get from living with us that you don’t get from living with Partner B, that promotes better reviews and better retention rates?”, because there’s going to be increased competition in that space.
Regardless of the reasons behind it, it’s still of growing importance and should be commended that there’s a lot of effort going into creating these senses of belonging for all of the good reasons we’ve outlined – improved academic performance, improved wellbeing, more friendships, more connections, all of those good things.
Jenny: I get the impression that sense of belonging has been seen as a secret sauce in the sector in terms of being something that brings it all together. If you feel like you belong, it touches every aspect of your student experience and maybe unifies it. Are you getting that sense?
Tom: Yes. I also get a bit of a sense that there are certain things that the sector is doing en masse that they believe is cracking this sense of belonging, whereas according to our research- Our latest autumn wave of investors and students covered about 19,500 student responses across 155 nationalities. Within that, we measured 17 different perceptions. We group those into the general responses of things that we think are connected in some way to that sense of belonging, including the upfront question of “Do you feel a sense of belonging in your halls of residence?”
Actually, a lot of the things don’t correlate so most of our members scored pretty well, but below where they expected to on their students’ responses to that question. What was really interesting was that none of them correlated with a lot of the activities that they do to actually try and create a sense of belonging. For example, one of the perceptions we measure is, “Do you believe there is a great range of events in your halls of residence?” Generally, they score okay on that – it’s pretty much middle scoring or an average of all our perceptions.
Then we asked, “Do you believe that those events help you make friends and meet people?” Actually, the resounding answer to that is: absolutely not! “No, I’m not making friends and meeting people at these events.” You go, “I know it’s important. I’m doing all the things I think are right for it, but the two things aren’t quite mashing together yet.”
Now, that’s not every member. We’ve got some that are really excelling at this, where those two things do correlate really closely, and so we’re trying to champion them to say, “Well, tell everybody else how you’re doing it, because the sector is willing to share.”
Jenny: I think those correlations are really, really interesting. I wonder if you’re able to, at this point, give us a little bit of a heads up on things that people are doing, which maybe are not making that much difference, and then things that they should start doing because they do make a difference?
Tom: That’s a good question. I’d always rather err on the positive, and maybe focus on some of the things that some of our members have championed and done really well that others can learn from, rather than maybe picking out things that they’ve done that aren’t causing that correlation. One of the perceptions that we relate to a sense of belonging is general performance of a student’s mental wellbeing, or their perception of how well their residential experience has supported their mental wellbeing.
In particular, the University of Leicester have absolutely excelled in that perception. I think they’ve done well on this in the past, where they’ve created a concept called Every Contact Matters. They’ve really empowered all front-facing staff – so cleaners, maintenance staff, people like yourself Luke, hall wardens, and residence life mentors – with a huge amount of mental health training so they feel really empowered when they’re having lots of contact with students to spot for signs, for things that might be anxiety, depression, loneliness, even things like alcohol problems.
That basically put a system in place to allow really simple cross-departmental reporting of those issues to ensure that the issue is not seen as an isolated accommodation thing, but is taken into that wide holistic view of the university across their academic performance, student services, and all those things. That’s come through in their answers. They are by far and away the highest-performing member we have on supporting students’ mental health. That’s one example of where we’ve got a member who’s doing something that is really excelling and causing those correlations, all the way through things like event programs, making friends, et cetera. That starts with that pillar of “You’re supporting my mental health in residences.”
Jenny: Yvonne, would you like to comment on that?
Yvonne: Yes. I was just thinking, well, there’s a whole range of things in there that you could talk about. The impact of a whole institutional approach to belonging is significant if you can start from that perspective and you can take people along with you, making sure that they maintain a healthy wellbeing and mental health status as they go, then you’re going to come out the other end with so much more positivity than you may otherwise do.
You always find with institutions such as universities, where you’ve got that whole institutional approach, it changes, and if it’s been driven from the top and you’ve got indicators at the top that say, “We want to do this, this is good for our students,” then that has a profound effect on everybody in the institution. Staff can’t support students and develop those sense of belonging if they’re not mentally healthy themselves. We need to make sure that we’re closing the loop on all of this, that everybody involved in the support of students is mentally healthy.
We offer provision and training to our accommodation providers to make sure that they are kept in the loop with what we’re doing as an institution and they can access that training as well because we work with a range of providers from yourselves, Jenny, who are huge, right down to some really small providers who probably couldn’t afford to train that staff or give them the awareness that we would like them to have. Making sure that you’ve got the holistic approach, I suppose, is the really important bit.
Jenny: Thank you. Luke, you must see this on a day-to-day basis being a hall warden.
Luke: Yes, absolutely. I just wanted to pick up on a point that Tom made, which was very interesting – it seems it’s a finding that’s come from his work. It really struck me, because I was talking only about things like event programs, or let’s say, the things that the institution can implement or control. When we think about belonging, actually, I think what we’re really thinking about is the more implicit stuff, is the stuff that we can’t quite grasp or control.
I found through my experience as warden and being on the ground with students that it’s the small things like students meeting in kitchens, or having conversations in laundry rooms, or the spaces in between, that really do create the gel for a good student experience. I think it’s those sorts of spaces which we need to pay attention to.
I think my argument is not that we necessarily aim to bring them into our remit of control as an institution, but rather that we create environments where that serendipity, that organic interaction, can take place. My PhD was spent looking at a lot of that on the campus with transitional learning spaces – basically, spaces just outside of lecture theatres, which we refurbished, putting some furniture, coffee machines, where students can meet serendipitously and have those interactions.
That’s what we need to begin focusing a lot of our attention on because, as Tom pointed out, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious correlation between – for example – how many events you’re attending in the year versus your sense of belonging. It’s more the stuff that we can’t quite grasp and the stuff that we don’t often see or able to control.
Tom: I think it’s subtle. Well put, Luke. It’s like, to what extent should the institution be involved in a heavy-handed way of going, “We’re going to do and make Friends Club now”? It doesn’t hugely work for the very diverse social student mix that we have in the UK and it’s not really how we’ve been brought through our education system prior to that, so it suddenly feels a bit odd. I think you’re absolutely right, it’s about creating that environment where students can do it themselves.
It’s really interesting. We use Net Promoter Score, which I’m not going to talk about – I think most people are familiar with it. But one of the questions in which we ask for perceptions is just “I’m enjoying my stay,” which is resoundingly positive for male and female students – it’s rated +30 on average, but then when we go through and ask those same young female students, “Do you feel a sense of community and belonging?” The female students scored it completely neutral, zero, and male students have given it -3.
It’s like they’re enjoying themselves, but it’s not necessarily because they’re feeling a sense of community and belonging in where they’re living. Did they feel that they were rating the institution’s involvement in creating that community or belonging – whereas, actually, what we don’t ask is: within your specific flat or cluster, do you feel a sense of community and belonging? I think it becomes a very different thing so to speak to your point about what’s your actual job as a provider or an institution. It’s interesting.
Jenny: Sense of belonging can be quite difficult to define, can’t it? I know that Wonkhe and Pearson did a piece of work on defining the different pillars of belonging, which I think was probably quite helpful, but we can’t necessarily assume that students know what we mean when we say ‘sense of belonging’. Is that what you’re finding, Tom?
Tom: Yes, and it means different things to different people. If somebody chooses to live in a standalone studio when a cluster is available, and they are naturally a more introverted person, they might think, “I don’t want a sense of belonging.” [laughs] “I’m saying I don’t feel that here, and I think that’s a positive thing.” You can’t take a sort of homogenous experience and push it at 155 different nationalities, different gender identities and sexual identities and say, “Okay, you’re all going to feel a sense of belonging here.”
I think it’s much more what Luke spoke about, which is that we’re just going to create the platform and give you spaces for you to create the spark moments yourselves, and then I think that residence life push that we see in most student accommodation offerings. For me, that feels more like the net to catch those that aren’t finding those spark moments naturally themselves, rather than being for the mass is kind of what we’re finding through our results.
Yvonne: Yes, I absolutely agree. I was just thinking about the intersectionality of all students and whilst we’ve got a large percentage of students who live in provider accommodation, we’ve also got a large percentage who live at home or in their own accommodation, so that sense of belonging can come from a whole host of different things, can’t it?
I think, possibly, whilst we always use ‘belonging’, and it’s the buzzword in the sector at the moment, maybe it’s ‘happiness’ that is key to this. Maybe it’s about making happy students and when you’re happy, you feel a greater sense of belonging. You might not realise it, but you do and it’s one of those concepts.
Jenny: A target on happiness would be quite a nice thing for the sector, wouldn’t it? Just to go back to your point, Tom, about picking up those who are not making those connections, I was quite interested in belonging in relation to inclusion, and particularly, because one of the standout findings of our Living Black at University research was the gap in belonging between Black and White students and some of the implications that had.
Luke, I was really interested to read in your work, that you were looking at diversity as a resource in terms of building belonging. Can you say a little bit more about that? That was really interesting.
Luke: It absolutely is a resource, also, are inherently diverse communities, not only because students are from different backgrounds and beliefs but also from different departments, so we have a huge disciplinary diversity, which we don’t see in academic departments.
The first thing I’d mention is that students themselves are reporting that they celebrate this diversity. It’s a big part of why they a) come to university and b) choose to live in halls. We attempt to try to leverage that as best as we can in halls, but to come back to sort of the point we’re talking about earlier, it’s an organic situation, an opportunity which students can really develop through and understand people from different backgrounds and retrieve different perspectives.
When they find themselves living in a hall floor or hall house, they have chosen to live in halls where they haven’t always chosen the hall they’re going to be living in and the people they’re going to be around. They find themselves in this very new and unique social situation and a very unique life stage where they are pretty much forced – that’s a strong word to use! – but pretty much forced to live among people from many different and diverse backgrounds. My experience as warden is that this is mostly seen positively by students.
You can get some conflicts which we have to intervene with and help mediate and often through that mediation process, there’s actually fresh trust and understanding between those students, which actually brings them closer. That’s the sort of best-case scenario at least. The diversity we see in halls is something that we should be, firstly, very aware of, and secondly, try to leverage as best we can with regards to students’ development and preparation for future contexts and environments.
Jenny: Thank you. Yvonne, you’ve got a diverse student body – what do you do to dial up those positives of that diverse environment and mitigate some of the clash points?
Yvonne: While Luke was talking about that intersectionality, I was thinking that the conflict isn’t always a bad thing. We always think of conflict as a bad thing, don’t we? Sometimes, I think it’s a useful settler, that there will be some levels of conflict. If it doesn’t become too extreme, I think it’s quite useful in settling people sometimes. We don’t, obviously, want it to go to those extreme levels, where you see breakdowns in relationships.
University is a time when you should be coming away from what you’ve known before, and opening your mind to lots of other things where you can experience things that you may not have experienced. That intersectionality and that variety of different experiences and individuals and cultures that you’d come into contact with at university is really important in developing the individual into the person they’re going to become in the future.
We tend to forget about it as a university trait these days. It’s more about the student experience and belonging but, actually, it’s about growing the individual and allowing them to explore some of those concepts that maybe they’ve not had the opportunity to do beforehand. That might result in a little bit of conflict, it might not. It might just result in beautifully confident individual thinkers who are able to go out and manage the world in a completely different way.
I think when we look at Gen Z, they are a very different generation from what we’ve had previously, and being able to develop their confidence through that sense of belonging, I think, is really important and really critical moving forward.
Jenny: It’s a real development opportunity, isn’t it? Tom, how are the universities that you’re working with navigating some of these things?
Tom: We’ve seen lots of different approaches. We see now a lot more self-selection in terms of those diversity groups pushing themselves together because they’re moving away from a preference system and putting themselves together. We’ve seen a really broad brush approach and going, “Do you know what? We’re not going to get involved in any sort of community engineering. Everybody just goes where they are,” through to a mix of really interesting experiments that some of our members do, where they offer very specific accommodation types.
For example, one of our members, the University of Birmingham, have alcohol-free halls, where they allocated a very small percentage of rooms to alcohol-free students – when students put forward their preferences in self-selection, they could have filled that small proportion of alcohol-free halls four times, because so many people said, “I want to live in alcohol-free accommodation.” We also have the University of Sheffield, who offer specific LGBTQ+ accommodation, and again, you have lots and lots of demand for that, so they’re almost going down a separate route which goes, “Okay, well, we will help you create diverse communities within the community at the outset of selection.”
A lot of those schemes are in their infancy but we do have some early results that they’ve performed incredibly well, that students there are very happy, there’s less call for room moves, fewer things like intervention from hall wardens to deal with conflict. There are some early signs that demand for it is high from students, that’s the first point, that shows it’s probably somewhere around the right idea, and the second point, some elite KPIs for success are showing that they’re probably quite a good idea on that concept of diversity and picking up on what you found in the Living Black research, Jenny.
We also found in terms of a sub-community within our research, all of those that identified as a non-cisgender were almost polar opposites to the results of cisgender students. We didn’t overspecify, so we literally put non-binary, other, or prefer not to say – all of those together. From about 19,500 responses, about 600 of those fell into that non-cisgender category.
On average, their results were 30 to 35 points lower on nearly every single perception compared to male and female students on the same answer, regardless of our members. Some did better, some did worse, but of the overall membership, there was a real voice from that non-cisgender community that was just screaming, “I don’t feel represented here.” It came out particularly strong on the perceptions that we measured around sense of belonging, they were really, really below the average. In addition to that, they came out really poorly on perceptions of safety.
Again, I do think there is more that the sector needs to do as the diversity changes over time, right? That’s a growing community, not a shrinking one, that we’re really interested to follow that through and do some more research, specifically to go, “We hear you. You’re, overall, telling us you’re not very happy. What is it that’s making you unhappy? Where do we need to adapt our offering?”
Is it like Sheffield’s approach and Birmingham’s approach, to create sub-communities or actually is it more that they say, “No, I want to be in with a diverse mix, but the program, the way I’m treated, the whole thing needs to be better?” We don’t know yet. All we’ve got is our initial results that just said, “We’re not happy.”
Jenny: We’re coming towards the end of the show now, but I do have one more question for all of you. What do you think is going to be the legacy of this current focus on student belonging? Yvonne, can I start with you?
Yvonne: Yes, of course, you can, Jenny. I’d like to think that the broadening of the focus on the student experience is a critical outcome of looking at belonging. I’ve worked in higher education for more years than I care to mention, and for a long time, it was fundamentally about the academic experience. We’ve broadened it. Belonging is at the heart of the student experience, and I think if that has achieved a step change in how the sector supports and looks out for its students, then that will be fantastic.
Jenny: That’s great. Thank you. Luke.
Luke: I think this point’s actually been made repeatedly and it was made just there by Yvonne. Very similarly, I do think we’re now one step closer to thinking more about the student experience holistically, and research in belonging has been a huge part of that. We’ve moved on from the days where the focus was solely on the quality of lecture delivery or the timetable. Now we’re talking and thinking about things like mental health, inclusion, and the whole accommodation, of course, because we recognise that these aspects are significantly shaping student-centred belonging.
I think it’s also led to the realisation that every person is different, which means that there’s no real single right way to engage or belong. The best we can do as we’ve spoken about earlier is to offer that diversity and opportunity for interaction and engagement. Part of this legacy will encourage us to pay more attention to how living environments in general, not just halls, can shape an inclusive hybrid learning experience.
Finally, I just wanted to say that halls shapes belonging at a critical life stage for all students, and the life lessons they do learn will prepare them for the independence and belonging that they have in future context and environments, so they’re definitely worth further attention.
Jenny: That’s great. Thank you. Finally, Tom.
Tom: I think you touched on it earlier really, Jenny. Hopefully, it results in happier students. The sector is incredibly good at measuring itself or marking itself in about 100,000 different ways. If one of those indexes that universities are benchmarked by is the happiness of their graduates and how that prepares them for life after university, I think that’s probably one of the best outcomes that could come from it.
Is it belonging of the building blocks that leads to happiness, or does belonging become because of happiness? I don’t know – chicken or egg. But hopefully, it will lead to happier students and an understanding in the sector that it’s one of the things that we should be proud to benchmark ourselves by.