A group of students sitting around a desk in an academic English class talk to a teacher

Belonging, Engagement, and Community (BEC) Project

Project Team

Past team members: Dr Eliel Cohen

The ‘Belonging, Engagement, and Community’ (BEC) Project has been running since 2019 and uses a mixed-methods research approach, including a questionnaire that incorporates an open-ended question, alongside the Imperial College London’s Sense of Belonging Scale, which we developed in 2019. We have had approximately 800 questionnaire responses and a total of 79 in-depth interviews with university students.

This project investigates students’ experiences of belonging, engagement, and community at and beyond Imperial. Ideally, universities are made up not just of a student ‘body’ but of a student ‘community.’ However, rather than assume the existence of a community, this cross-departmental, longitudinal project investigates how students understand and construct their own sense of belonging to, and engagement, with various potential communities (e.g., clubs, societies, academic communities, etc.). Although we are interested in students’ sense of belonging to the College, this study asks students to define those communities that are most important to them, within and beyond their higher education environment. Initial findings demonstrate that those aspects of belonging and community that are most important to students go beyond the university setting. For example, students also belong to their local, national, political, or cultural communities, or to their particular course, department, College society, or profession, as most important to them. While these different senses of belonging often align, they can come into conflict.

The findings of this study are therefore helping us to understand:

  • the nature and extent of students’ sense of belonging at Imperial;
  • how this influences students’ engagement in communities, including academically, socially and politically (Johnson, 2017);
  • the factors influencing students’ sense of belonging and engagement, with a particular interest in the role of gender, socioeconomic background (as indicated by receipt of the means-tested Imperial Bursary), fees status, discipline/department and campus location.

As well as fundamentally improving our empirical and theoretical understanding of students’ sense of belonging, this study also contributes to the ongoing and wide-ranging evaluation of the Learning & Teaching Strategy, which has amongst its aims that students are encouraged and empowered by their studies to adopt an outward-looking perspective when thinking about their place in and contributions to a global community.

Our mixed methods study involves standard social science approaches such as questionnaires and semi-structured, longitudinal interviews, as well as more innovative approaches to capture unique insights (including walking interviews). 

The data collection for this project is ongoing. If you are an Imperial student interested in participating in this research project, please get in touch with the research team. 



Viola, J. K., & Cohen, E. (2023). Reflections on the walking interview approach to examining university students' sense of belonging. In Academic Belonging in Higher Education (pp. 183-197). Routledge.

Cohen, E., & Viola, J.K. (2022). The role of pedagogy and the curriculum in university students' sense of belonging. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 19(4). https://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol19/iss4/06.  (Open Access)

Viola, J.K. (2021). Belonging and global citizenship in a STEM university. Education Sciences 11(12), 803.  https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci11120803.  (Open Access)

Webpage last updated in November 2023.