‘We Belong’: differential sense of belonging and its meaning for different ethnicity groups in higher education


  • Debra Cureton University of Wolverhampton
  • Phil Gravestock University of Wolverhampton




Belonging, Belongingness, BAME, differential outcomes


This paper covers two studies that explore student belonging in higher education and how a sense of belonging differs between ethnicity groups.  The research took a mixed methodology approach, collecting both quantitative data via a survey and qualitative data via focus groups.  Study One explored the differential experiences of belonging via the Belongingness Survey (Yorke, 2016), with a group of 941 students.  This was followed by Study Two, which used focus groups to generate a greater understanding of what belonging meant to the students, how belonging developed and to identify barriers to developing a sense of belonging.This work concluded that ethnicity-based differences in students’ sense of belonging are apparent, which mirror the differences that are witnessed at a sector level in degree outcomes.  Additionally, belongingness is found to have an unstable nature in that it waxes and wanes, and can be lost or developed at any part of the student lifecycle.  Some student-identified initiatives to support the development of belonging are presented.  The findings are discussed in the light of the current literature on differential outcomes.


Boone, H. and Boone, D. (2012) ‘Analyzing Likert data.’ Journal of Extension, 50(2), 1-5. Available at: https://www.joe.org/joe/2012april/tt2.php (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2). pp. 77-101. Available at: DOI: 10.1191/1478088706qp063oa (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

Broecke, S. and Nicholls, T. (2006) Ethnicity and degree attainment. London: Department for Education and Skills (DfES), Research Report RW92. Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6846/1/RW92.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018)

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979) The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 0-674-22457-4

Cousin, G. and Cureton, D. (2012) Disparities in student attainment (DiSA). York: Higher Education Academy. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/hub/download/worlverhampton_2010_disa_final_report_copy_1.pdf (Accessed:22nd August, 2018).

Deci, E. and Ryan, R. (1991) ‘A motivational approach to self: integration in personality.’ In: R.A. Dienstbier (ed.) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1990: Perspectives on Motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 237-288. Available at: https://www.scirp.org/(S(351jmbntvnsjt1aadkposzje))/reference/ReferencesPapers.aspx?ReferenceID=827144 (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

Dhanda, M. (2010) Understanding disparities in student attainment: Black and minority ethnic students’ experience. Wolverhampton: University of Wolverhampton. Available at: http://www2.wlv.ac.uk/equalopps/mdsummary.pdf (Accessed: 31 August 2018).

ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) (2014) Equality in Higher Education: statistical report 2014. London: ECU. Available at: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/ECU_HE-stats-report_student_v19.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) (2015) Equality in Higher Education: statistical report 2015. London: ECU. Available at: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Equality-in-HE-statistical-report-2015-part-2-students.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) (2017) Degree Attainment Gaps. Available at: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/guidance-resources/student-recruitment-retention-attainment/student-attainment/degree-attainment-gaps/ (Accessed: 23 October 2018).

Foster, E., Lawther, S., Keenan, C., Bates, N., Colley, B. and Lefever, R. (2011) The HERE Project: Higher Education and Engagement, Final Project Report. York: The Higher Education Academy. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/here_project_toolkit.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

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 (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

HEFCE (2015) Differences in degree outcomes: The effect of subject and student characteristics. Bristol: HEFCE. Available at https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/24317/ (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018)

Lefever, R. (2012) ‘Exploring student understandings of belonging on campus.’ Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, 4(2), 126-141. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1108/17581181211273075 (Accessed: 22nd August, 2019).

Mahar, A., Cobigo, V. and Stuart, H. (2014) ‘Comments on Measuring Belonging as a Service Outcome.’ Journal on Developmental Disabilities, 20(2), 20-33. Available at: https://oadd.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/41018_JoDD_20-2_v11f_20-33_mahar_et_al.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

Malone, G., Pillow, D. and Osman, A. (2012) ‘The General Belongingness Scale (GBS): assessing achieved belongingness.’ Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 311-316. Available at: https://toad.edam.com.tr/sites/default/files/pdf/the-general-belongingness-scale-gbs-toad.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

McClelland, D. (1987) Human motivation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 978-0521369510.

Mountford-Zimdars, A., Sabri, D., Moore, J., Sanders, J., Jones, S. and Higham, L. (2015) Causes of Differences in Student Outcomes. Bristol: Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE. Available at: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/23653/1/HEFCE2015_diffout.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

Murray, H. (1938) Explorations in Personality: a clinical and experimental study of fifty men of college age. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780195305067.

OFFA (Office for Fair Access) (2017) Outcomes of Access Agreement Monitoring for 2015-16. Bristol: Office for Fair Access. Available at: https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20171102111551/https://www.offa.org.uk/press-releases/offa-monitoring-outcomes-2015-16/ (Accessed: 7th September, 2018).

Rogers, C. (1951) Client-centered Therapy: its current practice, implications and theory. London: Constable. ISBN 10: 0094539901.

Ryan, R. (1993) ‘Agency and organization: intrinsic motivation, autonomy and the self in psychological development.’ In: J. Jacobs (ed.) Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 1992: Developmental Perspectives on Motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1-56. Available at: https:www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov/pubmed/1340519 (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

Singh, G. (2011) Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Students’ Participation and Success in Higher Education: improving retention and success. A synthesis of research evidence. York: Higher Education Academy. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/bme_synthesis_final.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

Thomas, L. (2012) Building Student Engagement and Belonging at a Time of Change in Higher Education. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/what_works_final_report.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

Thomas, L., Hill, M., O’Mahony, J. and Yorke, M. (2017) Supporting Student Success: strategies for institutional change: What Works? Student Retention and Success programme Final Report. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/hub/download/what_works_2_-_full_report.pdf (Accessed: 22nd August, 2018).

Trowler, V. and Trowler, P. (2010) Student Engagement Evidence Summary. York: The Higher Education Academy. Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/studentengagementevidencesummary_1.pdf (Accessed: 31 August 2018).

UUK (Universities UK) (2002) Reducing the Risk of Student Suicide: issues and responses for higher education institutions. London: Universities UK. ISBN 1 84036 090 9.

UUK (Universities UK) (2015) Student mental wellbeing in higher education: good practice guide. London: Universities UK. ISBN: 978-1-84036-331-9 .

Vallerand, R. (1997) ‘Toward a hierarchical model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.’ Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 29, 271-360. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60019-2 (22 August 2018).

Vázquez-Montilla, E., Wilder, L., and Triscari, R. (2012) ‘Ethnically diverse faculty in higher ed: belonging, respect, and role as cultural broker.’ Multicultural Learning and Teaching, 7(1), 1-15. Available at: http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/mlt (Accessed: 22 August 2018).

Yorke, M. (2016) ‘The development and initial use of a survey of student belongingness, engagement and self-confidence in UK higher education.’ Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(1), 154-166. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2014.990415 (Accessed: 22 August 2018).