By Kieran Balloo
A recent survey of nearly 1000 individuals found that a lack of belonging to the local community may be related to feelings of loneliness. This research found the issue to be particularly acute for individuals from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, who may feel less welcome in their community than White individuals. Conceptualising belonging in higher education is therefore likely to be important too, but this may be difficult since belonging is unlikely to be a fixed state of being. The Enhancing Student Mental Wellbeing Handbook views a sense of belonging as being about having “strong connections with others who share your values”, and the authors note that it could be a protective factor that “promote[s] positive mental health and wellbeing”. Thus, whilst it may be difficult to quantify belonging, or the extent to which the university population consists of individuals who share a given student’s values, in this post we will give a short overview of how we are using quantitative data in the #StudentWellLives project to try and understand this situation a little more clearly.
In an earlier post, we discussed how we are using publicly available data from the UK Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) to understand how the cultural, social and built environments of different universities might impact on students’ mental health and wellbeing (both positively and negatively). For example, participating in sports or extra-curricular activities may be beneficial for certain students’ wellbeing, so the size of green spaces and sports fields at the university may act as proxies for some of the many protective factors that potentially exist in university environments. However, we are also using these data to gain a sense of whether the universities attended by respondents from the Next Steps Study included other students and staff who they might have viewed as being ‘like them’ – i.e. others with whom they could have felt more able to build strong connections.
In order to understand whether these students went to universities with ‘others like them’, we have used HESA data from the time the respondents were at university to determine the proportion of students and staff at their university who had similar characteristics to them. For example, if the respondent was a female commuter student at the time, we have calculated the proportion of female commuters who were also at their university. We will then examine whether going to a university with more individuals who have similar characteristics might act as a protective factor. Of course, going to a university with very different students might also be positive, so this is something we aim to explore with this exploratory approach too.
We would be interested to hear about other characteristics we should consider exploring, so please leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @uniwelllives #StudentWellLives.