Special issue


In a world characterised by supercomplexity, in which higher education (HE) is in the grip of neoliberal market forces (Barnett, 2000), it is incumbent upon participants in this sector to ask; what does it mean to belong, and to what? ‘Belonging’ has become a buzzword used by institutions to seemingly demonstrate how they seek to include students and help them ‘fit in’ to specific cultures and contexts of learning. A sense of ‘belonging’ may be important for some students at an emotional level; however, in the context of the neoliberal university, we argue that focussing on this concept may have the effect of encouraging students to assimilate to the dominant culture. More subtly, it could be noted that this is part of an ongoing process of inculcating students to the beliefs, values and normative behaviours associated with neoliberalism, arguably reproducing and exacerbating many of the social challenges threatening education, democracy, ecosystems and ultimately our ability to survive on this planet. This theoretical paper challenges the notion of belonging, problematising it as a neoliberal construct of 21st century HE that insidiously invokes a particular notion of ‘community’ which functions to prioritise domestication and conformity to social and economic expectations of a higher education driven by an agenda of employability, entrepreneurialism, and acquisitive individualism. We propose a more meaningful conception of ‘belonging’; based on engaging students in changing their world so as they may belong in the world authentically. We contend that belonging holds greater promise as a means of self-actualisation, liberation, and a way to develop authentic ‘critical being’ (Barnett, 1997) whereby students develop belonging and are not “…subject to the world but able to act autonomously and purposively within it” (ibid. p.4).

Practitioner Notes

  1. Our critique of belonging centres on its normative portrayal of students as uniform within a massified system characterised by diversity of students, which favours the experiences of dominant social groups in society and can therefore exclude those not reflecting such groups and their related forms of social/cultural capital.
  2. We hope to encourage colleagues to consider an alternative view that contests the idea of belonging and promotes a relational view of beings within an ecology. This relational view sees education as communicative rather than transactional, and therefore more democratic.
  3. Our proposal for relational pedagogies recommends a move away from individualist views of learning and teaching to consider an interconnected, caring approach which views learning (and universities) as a complex ecosystem interrelated and interdependent upon elements beyond the human, and, therefore, anthropocentric views of the world.
  4. Rather than seeking to belong to a university as a large whole, we propose universities should instead value students as the people, or beings, they are and value explicitly what they bring to the university and classroom. In doing so, our suggestion is to focus on supporting students’ development as relational, not bounded, and critical beings able and prepared to negotiate an anxious and uncertain world.