Doctoral students’ experiences of academic (non-)belonging within the neoliberal higher education environment: a comparative institutional case study of two English universities

In the UK and many other countries globally, university culture today is shaped by the wider ‘neoliberal’ policy context, and is dominated by corporate values of competitiveness, performance and profitability. This culture often conflicts with traditional educational values and antagonises collegiality and collective ways of working, and has significant implications for doctoral researchers, who often desire to be part of an academic community, but commonly report feelings of isolation and lack of belonging.

In this context, the aim of this research is to explore the lived experiences of academic belonging and non-belonging among a diversity of doctoral researchers across pre-92 and post-92 (‘new’) universities in England within the current ‘neoliberal’ higher education environment, taking account of social structural variables. A cross-institutional case study research design was used involving focus groups with thirty-four doctoral students located in the areas of education and applied health research at two Midlands universities.

Themes arising from the focus groups included: enterprise culture and the need for self-promotion; the importance and mitigating effects of relationships with supervisors, but also  the reductive effects on these; sparsity and competition in relation to research assistant and teaching assistant roles; the limited, reductionist and self-responsibilising nature of student counselling services; problems with university administration causing stress and a barrier to feelings of belonging in institutional contexts; the importance of office space for enabling connections with others and the university; feelings of isolation and detachment from their universities for international students based overseas; and disidentification with, or personal distancing from, academia for some ‘non-traditional’ student groups.  These findings will be discussed from a social justice perspective, with consideration of matters of equality and inclusion, and implications for higher education policy, practice and support mechanisms for doctoral students.

Funding acknowledgement: this research was funded by the ESRC SMaRteN Student Mental Health Network.

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