Education Observatory

Research in Education at the University of Wolverhampton

Academic (Un)belonging and the Neoliberal University

A comparative institutional case study of postgraduate research students’ experiences at two English universities.

The purpose of this project is to gain insights into experiences of academic belonging and non-belonging among a diversity of doctoral students at pre- and post-92 universities, in order to

  • offer evidence to inform the development of university policy and practice responses in this area; and
  • support doctoral students (e.g. through identifying relevant academic networks and support fora that may be helpful, or generating new support mechanisms, where desired).

These issues are considered important to address by universities due to feelings of academic belonging and non-belonging relating to matters of participation, diversity and inclusion in postgraduate research (PGR) study. They relate to equality of opportunity, outcomes and mental health and wellbeing for doctoral students.

The project is taking place at two universities, one pre-92 university and one post-92 (‘new’) university, in the Midlands of England between September 2021 and October 2022. It is focused on the areas of Education and Applied Health Research at the two universities.

For more information and to get involved, please contact the lead researcher, Dr Lydia Lewis, Education Observatory, School of Education, University of Wolverhampton:

Project summary

In the UK and many other countries globally, university culture today is shaped by the wider ‘neoliberal’ policy context, which encourages individualism and competition and antagonizes collective values and ways of working. This has significant implications for doctoral students, who often occupy a liminal position between staff and students, and desire to be part of an academic community, but commonly report feelings of isolation and ‘imposter syndrome’. While existing research suggests these feelings are likely to affect doctoral students from minority groups and international students in particular, their lived experiences have gone largely undocumented. Other relevant variables affecting the doctoral student experience include the type of university attended and area of study.

In this context, the aim of this research is to explore the lived experiences of academic (un-/non)belonging among a diversity of PGRs across pre-92 and post-92 universities and how these relate to the current neo-liberal higher education environment.

A cross-institutional case study research design will be used involving focus groups with around 30 doctoral students across two Midlands universities. The research will involve doctoral students in the project team and advisory group. It will be action-oriented towards informing policy and practice, and supporting doctoral students, at the two universities and more widely.

Project progress

We have now completed eight focus groups with doctoral students for the project, four at each participating institution, and are in the process of finishing our reporting of findings.  In July 2022 we held an interim feedback event with doctoral students to discuss the research findings and their implications.

If you are interested in hearing more about the research, please contact co-investigators Dr Gurpinder Lalli: or Dr Jawiria Naseem: