There’s a line in ‘soft rock’ goddess Pat Benatar’s mid-1980s hit We Belong that goes: “I’ve invested too much time to give you up that easy…To the doubts that complicate your mind.”

Universities need to have this in mind when they reflect on the student experiences they create and how they make sure the road from open day to graduation day is not only an ever-improving journey but a continuously exciting and fulfilling one.

The latest annual Student Academic Experience Survey (from HEPI) recorded a 6% drop in the proportion of students that are happy with their choice of university and course (58% of students taking part) compared to two years ago. If also found that 9% would (knowing what they now know) have chosen a different university – and 5% would have chosen a different course and a different university. HEPI’s survey also identified that the proportion of students whose experience has been ‘mainly worse than expected’ has doubled from 13% to 27%. 

In mitigation (for universities) this has been a dramatically different and unusual period in their history – so the doubts that complicate student minds have bound to have increased and taken more of a serious hold.

But, nevertheless, it does throw up the continuing challenge: how do universities create a better sense of support and belonging?

Again, HEPI’s survey indicates some of the answers. Their question around which factors most contribute to students’ sense of belonging at their institution found that the highest sources of this bond are: approach and accessible academics; living alongside other students; living close to (or on) campus; making it clear what the university expects from students; and being part of a perse student population. Actually – when you cut through the 17 most common factors – it actually boils down to : proximity and relationships (with students and staff); feeling listened and value; knowing what is the University wants from its students; and a raft of great social experiences (“extracurricular activities”, having informal social opportunities within the course, and being embedded with the local town/city/area. 

In light of all this, one particular growing trend I’ve is in how universities are now encouraging their teaching and learning staff to develop a better sense of student belonging. The University of Portsmouth has created a Being, Belonging, Becoming framework for when students return this autumn:; the University of Reading has an Engaging Everyone mantra:; MIT provides guidance on this via its all-staff Teaching and Learning Lab:; and UCL offers guidance for academics in supporting BAME students:

This is all good – but there’s actually more than needs to be done across the whole university community (beyond addressing what happens in the teaching and learning context) – so I’d be interested to know of any universities who making other changes and innovations to bolster belonging and destroy the doubts.


Justin Shaw is Chief Higher Education Consultant at Communications Management. He’s been investigating the student promise among universities and how universities create a stronger sense of belonging for students.

Also: See the HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey 2021:

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