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Apr 4, 2024 | by Alyson Dodd

What makes a happy university? Community wellbeing in a university setting

Wellbeing research in universities usually focuses on individual wellbeing, looking at student and staff wellbeing separately. To grow understanding, we also need to know what ‘being well together’ means in higher education institutions.

To help address this evidence gap and build knowledge about community wellbeing in education, Northumbria University is using the Centre’s community wellbeing conceptual framework in its place-based qualitative research. This will create early stage evidence and new insights into this previously unexplored area.

Here, Alyson Dodd from the research team, takes us through the project.

Universities are academic communities – but are they happy communities? 

Across the sector, there is a concern that student and staff wellbeing is dipping. This is partly fuelled by factors linked to specific roles, for example transitions in students, and workload in staff. It is also arguably fuelled by the changing landscape of a sector increasingly focused on metrics and marketisation

Prior research on university student and staff wellbeing has tended to focus on individual wellbeing, using self-report questionnaires to ask people questions about how they feel, how satisfied they are with life, and how much they believe they are fulfilling their potential and achieving goals. These scores are then put together to get a sense of wellbeing in the group. 

While this is important, the sector also needs to develop an understanding of what ‘being well together’ means in universities, to support these communities to thrive. This is known as ‘community wellbeing’. 

What do we already know?

Community wellbeing can be thought of as the combination of social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political conditions identified by individuals and their communities as essential for them to flourish and fulfil their potential. It is probably not the same as the sum of individual wellbeing in a given community.

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing has commissioned, delivered and supported a number of projects on community wellbeing. 

This work has identified a number of key ingredients, including:

  • social networks
  • connection 
  • trust and belonging
  • the physical environment
  • opportunities to meaningfully participate

Explore the existing resources.

What have we done?

Using the Centre’s community wellbeing conceptual framework

We spoke to academic and professional services staff, and to postgraduate and undergraduate students. We asked them to bring along images as examples of community wellbeing to guide our discussion about this tricky concept. 

What have we found?

  • Both staff and students valued being part of a socially connected university to which they felt like they belonged. 
  • Students wanted to make a broad range of connections, a strong support network that boosted their social capital throughout their journey of learning and personal growth. 
  • Staff prioritised strengthening bonds with those they encountered in their day-to-day roles, although opportunities to connect beyond their own teams/departments were also important. 
  • For both staff and students, the physical environment of the university played a crucial role in community wellbeing. The hustle and bustle of being on campus helped people to feel part of the university and build and maintain connections. They valued places to come together to collaborate and socialise, including outside spaces and cafes/bars on campus. There was an emphasis on spaces that facilitated social connection alongside work and study. 
  • For students, the library was vital. Staff emphasised their workspaces, which could drive division if there was perceived inequity in designated spaces (hot desking was a hot topic), or physical separation leading to people working in silos. 
  • A supportive and positive university culture encompassed feelings that the university was somewhere they felt proud to work for or study at, with sustainable ambitions and a place in the wider civic community. 
  • Effective communication, leadership, support and inclusivity were all important for a sense of community wellbeing. Students and staff we interviewed expressed wanting compassion over competition, to feel valued by the university. 
  • For staff in particular, community wellbeing and collegiality were undermined by sector-wide market mechanisms – the perceived drive for efficiency and lack of time to engage in community activities beyond their immediate workload. The trickle effect on students’ community wellbeing through large class sizes and less time with lecturers was apparent. 

What’s next? 

There is a lot to explore here, but this is a useful framework to use as a starting point for looking into the key ingredients in more detail – and for developing initiatives and policy to support university communities to be happier and to thrive. Keep an eye out for full reports of our findings in both staff and students!


Practice Examples
Jul 30, 2018
Running a Wellbeing Week at uni
Feb 1, 2024 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
What we know about wellbeing in place and community 2014 – 2024
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Oct 28, 2021 | By Nancy Hey
What helps individuals and communities to thrive?
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The individual, place, and wellbeing – a network analysis
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Apr 7, 2021 | By Ingrid Abreu Scherer
Community hubs and green space: real-world evidence for enhancing wellbeing 
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Jun 22, 2023 | By Stewart Martin
Community agency and control – rapidly reviewing their impact on community wellbeing
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Dec 8, 2022 | By Margherita Musella
Evaluating what works for place-based arts and culture
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Oct 6, 2022 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
Social capital: what works to improve belonging, cohesion and support?
Guest Blog
Oct 19, 2023 | By What Works Centre for Wellbeing
What works to support student mental health – new evidence hub launched
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