A sense of belonging – what it means for higher education institutions

By Christina Fernandes, Intern at What Works

During my internship I’ve come to understand the importance of feeling connected to the institution you study in and the people you work with. I recall on my What Works induction day, feeling welcomed and respected by the team, and with time, I felt part of the team. I then began to wonder if my peers felt similar feelings of connection with King’s, and if they felt a sense of belonging with the institution and its staff. This blog explores the importance of a sense of belonging for students and HE institutions.

What is a sense of belonging?

Goodenow (1993) defines sense of belonging as “the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included and supported by others” in the university’s social environment[i]. After finding this definition I asked a few of my peers if they felt a sense of belonging at King’s, to which the answer was often ‘no’. This lack of a sense of belonging was affirmed in the findings from our ‘Fostering Belongingness at King’s’ report, which highlights the considerable difference in how students experience sense of belonging. It found students from widening participation backgrounds are less likely to feel they belong, along with Asian and Chinese students, and first-generation female students[ii].

Sense of belonging is not static

The What Works department has been measuring students’ reported self-efficacy and sense of belonging over the past three years, using ‘Settling into King’s’ (SiTK’s) questions to help improve services offered to students that support their wellbeing and belongingness. The SiTK’s Report found that final year students reported the lowest sense of belonging compared to first and second year students. Our latest data shows that, over the three years, sense of belonging has decreased as students progress throughout their course[iii]. These findings suggest that a sense of belonging is not static. A student can feel they belong more one year, and experience feelings of being accepted, respected and included much less the following year.

Why is a sense of belonging important?

The BAME attainment gap (the difference in the number of white students getting a 1st or 2:1 in comparison to BAME students), is something which doesn’t seem to be going away. In 2020 the gap was 22.1 per cent for Black students, 10.8 per cent for Asian students, 4.8 per cent for Mixed and 14.3 per cent for Other[iv]. This is worrying because these differential outcomes are not rooted in academic ability, since all students must demonstrate their academic capability to gain a place at university. A number of factors could be influencing this gap. One aspect which has been linked to differentials in attainment via research, is a sense of belonging[v].

Sense of belonging has also been suggested to affect student retention (how many students complete their course)[vi]. In 2019, only 86.8 per cent of BAME students compared to 91.3 per cent of White students continue with their course and qualify from university[vii]. This is worrying because despite improving BAME student progression into university, not all of these students see their studies through. The effects of BAME non-continuation rates have a number of implications on representation in the labour market, especially at a senior level. This is why understanding differential degree outcomes and how different student groups experience higher education is key.

What is King’s doing to promote a greater sense of belonging?

What Works has found five aspects to consider when seeking to promote student belonging[viii].

Listed below are initiatives within Kings that aim to support each of these five things.

  • Connections: Higher education institutions should help students make connections with staff and peers as it promotes supportive relationships along shared values[ix].

Welcome Week and refreshers events are great way to be introduced to an institution to become more familiar with all that happens at university. KCLSU has a number of  societies, sports clubs and academic associations  for students to sign up to.

  • Identification: Students should be encouraged to develop an identity they are proud of as part of their university community. This doesn’t mean giving up other valued identities they have[x].

King’s Civic Leadership Academy is an opportunity students have to develop their identity and skills as a leader whilst working with the local community:

  • Stability: Students should feel like they have a strong support network they can count on[xi].

All Undergraduate and Postgraduate Taught students are allocated a personal tutor from within their department or faculty. A personal tutor is an academic member of staff who will take an active interest in a student’s academic progress and overall university experience, and is concerned for a student’s general welfare. Throughout the year a personal tutor and student will have sessions to discuss any issues.

  • Perceived similarity: Being able to fit in, feel understood and identify with others is universally important to us all[xii]. There is no silver bullet approach that enables this to happen however the more we listen to what students say and act on feedback the better things will be. Conversations about Race (CaR) is an initiative that has been set up for students to be able to have safe and brave conversations.
  • Respect: Recognising the diversity, value and voice of each individual student is essential to the healthy function of any university.

King’s 100 is an opportunity that students and staff have to collaborate with a diverse range of students/colleagues across the university and provide insight, and work together to shape the delivery of the Education Strategy and the student experience.

Higher education institutions should conduct their own research to understand how belonging effects their students

An attainment gap exists within higher education institutions that cannot be fully explained by previous grades. There are lots of important tools that universities have in their arsenal to tackle that gap. One way is to improve sense of belonging. As our Settling into King’s data shows, students’ sense of belonging tends to decrease as students move from first to final year. Induction days and welcome week events, are great but are not enough to maintain feelings of belonging throughout the student journey at university.

This blog has outlined some initiatives that King’s promotes to ensure a sense of belonging throughout the student lifecycle. Higher education institutions should conduct their own research and analyse data to understand how belongingness is an issue for students in their own context. This will allow for more targeted intervention to address belonging because an issue in one university might not be the same in another. Our Settling into King’s report provides a useful example of how we are doing this at King’s, however interventions that may have had some impact in one institution or with a particular cohort doesn’t necessarily mean the intervention is guaranteed to be successful in a different higher education institution or year after year. Given the shift to more online engagement because of covid-19, research is still needed to see how this affects sense of belonging in the long-term to know how best we can support students.


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[i] Goodenow, C. (1993) ‘Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: relationships to motivation and achievement.’ Journal of Early Adolescence, 13, 21-43. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431693013001002

[ii] This is an internal report so URL will work for King’s only addresses


[iii] What Works department social mobility and student success, (2021), ‘Measuring self efficacy and sense of belonging: Settling into King’s’. Available at: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/study-assets/pdf/settlinginto-kingsexternal-report-2021-final.pdf

[iv] Office for students, (2020), ‘Degree attainment: Black Asian and minority ethnic students’. Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/effective-practice/black-asian-and-minority-ethnic-students/

[v] Thomas L, (2012), ‘Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change: a summary of findings and recommendations from the What Works? Student retention and success programme’. Available at: https://www.phf.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-Works-Summary-report.pdf

[vi] Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45(1), 89-125. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/00346543045001089

[vii] Kauser, S. et al, (2021), ‘Learning from the experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) university students who withdraw from their undergraduate degree’, SN social sciences. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs43545-021-00115-8

[viii] *This is an internal report so URL will work for King’s only addresses


[ix] Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, Paul Hamlyn Foundation

[x] Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on latino college students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of Education, 70, 324-345.

[xi] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529. Pg 497

[xii] Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (1), 82–96.

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