Sense of belonging

Julian Priddle

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

9 August 2021

We have an increasingly diverse student population, but this is not reflected in either our staff or our local communities. For instance, about a third of our student body identify as BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) whereas this only applies to about 15% of our staff and between 4-18% of our main campus cities (excluding ARU London and UK and international partners).

A UUK and NUS joint report on the ‘attainment gap’ between BAME and White students highlighted the importance of all students feeling that they are part of their university community:

'A greater focus is needed from universities, working with their students, on ensuring that BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university, while institutions need an understanding of how a poor sense of belonging might be contributing to low levels of engagement, including with curriculums, and progression to postgraduate study, embedding best practice.'

At the Engage 2021 conference, we asked delegates for feedback on students’ sense of belonging, particularly but not exclusively in the context of “race” and ethnicity. Responses noted the diversity of the ARU student population, although commenting on the variations across faculties.

However, comments also questioned the extent to which we can consider the university a single community to which all individuals contribute. It was also clear from some responses that staff are not as well-informed as they should be about the composition of our student body, as well as our staff, especially at faculty or school level.

One other way to consider a sense of belonging is to highlight the features of our university community that are obstacles to feeling part of the social and academic community. The issue raised most often, and one that is encountered frequently elsewhere in universities, professions, and wider society, is the lack of role models – an observation applying equally to students and staff.

ARU’s Race Equality Strategy has a workstream aimed specifically at “Greater visibility and presence of Black, Asian and minority ethnic members of the ARU community and at all levels of the institution”. In the past, ARU has used posters of BAME alumni to illuminate the success of graduates in a range of fields, and this seems to have the potential for further development. Likewise, within courses, practitioners who are BAME have been used to highlight opportunities for our students, increasing the conviction that a career in their chosen field is an achievable reality.

We asked students how well they felt that they fitted into the university community. The question itself was felt by some to raise issues around conformity, which then raised bigger issues as to whether the institution should embrace diversity, or its members should ‘fit in’. The prompt was based very much on the former – a diverse population of students feeling that they belong to/‘fit into’ - the university community because it reflects that diversity.

Responses to the prompt questions often focused on the need to consult our students. There are already examples of successful student engagement with initiatives in individual faculties and at institutional levels, most recently through the work of our Student Advocates. We have strong examples of where students have taken leadership in developing approaches to enhancing a sense of belonging. But as an institution we need to be able to make this mainstream rather than depending always on some highly motivated students.

There is huge potential in finding solutions within the curriculum where students have the opportunity to value and make use of diversity, and to integrate it within student-led learning. Activities such as the introduction of Ruskin modules and our Advocates’ work on curriculum diversification highlight this.

Disclaimer

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