Module 4, Topic 3
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Theme 12: Social Integration and Belonging

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What does it cover?

  • Ensuring students become socially integrated into university
  • Creating a safe, inclusive community
  • Tackling isolation

Principles of good practice

12.1 Universities take considered action to ensure a diverse, safe community.

12.2 Universities actively and systematically support the social integration of all students.

12.3 Universities take action to tackle the causes and effects of social isolation.

12.4 Universities provide support for those experiencing loneliness.

12.5 Universities work to prevent and address marginalisation, discrimination or harassment of individual students and groups.

12.6 Universities ensure social cohesion and individual differences exist alongside each other, taking account of power dynamics and imbalances.

Why is this theme important and what matters?

Research has clearly demonstrated that belonging and social integration are important, not just for student wellbeing, but also for academic achievement and persistence to graduation [123].

Authors working in the fields of psychology, philosophy, education and sociology all highlight the importance of social connectedness and belonging for health and wellbeing[45678].

Human beings have a need to belong to a community, have an emotional connection with others, have the attention of others, feel supported and have a sense of status [5].

Good wellbeing and mental health depends on our ability to meet these needs within our environment.

Conversely, student loneliness has been shown to be the strongest overall predictor of mental distress in the student population [6]. We know that perceived loneliness reduces cognitive function, mood and immunity[7]
and loneliness has a direct negative effect on academic performance [8]. As a result, students who experience loneliness may face a negative emotional cycle in which loneliness reduces mood and academic performance, undermining self–belief and belonging, which further reduces mood. Perceived loneliness has been shown to be a heightened risk factor for the development of mental illness in the general population[9]. It is important to note that loneliness can exist without an individual being socially isolated[10]. Although isolation makes loneliness more likely, it is possible to be socially connected and lonely[10]. Students who experience loneliness may, therefore, benefit from therapeutic interventions.

Successful social integration appears to matter right from the beginning of a student’s time at university [3]. A study by Kleiber, at al, (2018) indicated that early friendship formation may have long term health implications that are still evident in a student’s final year at university [11].

It is equally important that individuals feel safe in their community. Discrimination, harassment and bullying have all been shown to have short and long term negative impacts on mental health [1213].

While there is some evidence that a significant number of students may be experiencing loneliness and social isolation[14], there are no large scale population studies that would provide an accurate picture. Research does suggest that disabled students, BAME students, international students, students living at home, online students and first in family students may be more likely to experience social isolation [14]. This suggests that these groups would benefit from special consideration in the design of interventions/approaches to social integration and belonging.

Staff participants in the Charter focus groups suggested that making friends without pre–prepared structures and support was a life skill that many new students may lack. There were also concerns that some university environments, such as halls of residence without communal areas and with bed sits, could increase loneliness [15].

Beyond this, little work has been done to establish how student friendship groups form, how and why students become socially isolated and how student loneliness can be prevented. Much work to support social integration and the creation of friendship groups, within universities, is often ad hoc and unevaluated.

This is particularly concerning as evidence indicates that, once someone perceives themselves as being lonely, subsequent social interactions are less effective in helping them to become socially connected [5].

This means there is a pressing need for universities to ensure students can integrate quickly, form healthy friendship groups, encounter an environment
that is welcoming and safe for them and receive quick and effective support if they become socially isolated [711].

Within this there is clearly a need for considered collaboration between universities and students’ unions. There is emerging evidence that, for some students, membership of a club or society can increase their sense of belonging[16].

However, there are a number of delicate balances that must be maintained when considering how universities can create environments in which students can thrive. For universities to be genuinely inclusive, they must remain a forum for diverse and challenging voices. Encountering different experiences, viewpoints and beliefs are a key aspect of student development, and can serve as a protective factor for future mental health by preparing students for future experiences and encounters. Creating a culture of bland conformity is likely to be exclusionary for many and potentially robs students of the opportunity to learn and grow.

A number of philosophers have suggested that the main challenge of all societies and communities is to have stable social rules which can ensure cohesion and general belonging but also accommodate difference and individualism (e.g. [17]). Addressing this question seems salient for universities, who wish to create communities to which their students can belong and environments which stretch them and encourage them to thrive.

Suggested resources

Research from the Charter Consultation – M. Priestley, A. Hall, S. J. Wilbraham, V. Mistry, G.Hughes & L. Spanner (2022) Student perceptions and proposals for promoting wellbeing through social relationships at university


1. Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research. Review of Educational Research, 45(1), pp. 89–125
2. Thomas, L. (2012). Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change: Final report from the What Works? Student retention and success programme. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
3. Kahu, E.R. & Nelson, K (2018) Student engagement in the educational interface: understanding the mechanisms of student success, Higher Education Research & Development, 37:1, pp. 58–71, DOI:10.1080/07294360.2017.1344197
4. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self–determination in human behavior (3rd Ed.). New York:Plenum Publishing Co. N.Y.
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7. Cacioppo, J.T. & Patrick, W. (2008) Loneliness. New York: Norton.
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10. Mansfield, L., Daykin, N., Meads, C., Tomlinson, A., Gray, K., Lane, J. & Victor, C. (2019). A conceptual review of loneliness across the adult life course (16+ years). Online: What Works Wellbeing–conceptual–review/ [Accessed 11/11/19]
11. Kleiber, P., Whillans, A.V. & Chen, F.S. (2018). Long–Term Health Implications of Students’ Friendship Formation during the Transition to University. Applied psychology:health and well–being, 10 (2), pp. 290–308 doi:10.1111/aphw.12131
12. Bhui, K., Nazroo, J., Francis, J., Halvorsrud, K & Rhodes J. (2018) The impact of racism on mental health. The Synergi Collaborative Centre.
13. Smithies, D. & Byrom, N. (2018). LGBTQ+ Student Mental Health: The challenges and needs of gender, sexual and romantic minorities in Higher Education. Leeds: Student Minds
14. WONKHE, (2019). Only The Lonely.–content/wonkhe–uploads/2019/03/Only–the–lonely–8–Page_v2–003.pdf [Accessed 8/11/19]
15. Brown, J., Volk, F. & Spratto, E.M. (2019) The Hidden Structure: The Influence of Residence Hall Design on Academic Outcomes, Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 56:3, 267–283, DOI:10.1080/19496591.2019.1611590
16. Wonkhe, (2019). Opportunity blocked: how student opportunities and SUs relate to student life, belonging and outcomes. Online: UKtrendence research.–content/wonkhe–uploads/2019/10/Opportunity–blocked–FINAL–min.pdf [Accessed 14/11/19]
17. Rousseau, J–J. (2004). The Social Contract. London:Penguin