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Why universities and academics should bother with public engagement

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Why universities and academics should bother with public engagement

Universities and their academic members benefit from significant sums of money from the UK taxpayer. It seems only right then, that academics should engage the public in what they do.

It’s fair to say though that this hasn’t always been the main priority for researchers, which has led to the idea for some that public engagement just isn’t something that’s done much in the ivory towers of academia.

But this makes it hard for the taxpayer to know where their money is actually going, which then leads to the impression that universities are wasting public money on “pointless” research.

To combat the public perception that academics aren’t very good at sharing their wisdom, significant investments have been made in establishing what some call a “culture of public engagement” in UK universities. But for many academics the point of public engagement isn’t always entirely clear. And it is still frequently thought of as more of a discrete and fringe activity – found in the shallows of what many consider to be important.

Of course, that isn’t the case for everyone, and there are some really great – and exciting – examples of academics engaging with the wider public. But although there is increased evidence of academics involved in public engagement, it seems, their motivation for doing so varies considerably.

There are, for example, academics who undertake public engagement on the basis of a moral commitment to the idea of being public intellectuals. But there are also others who see public engagement as nothing more than a box-ticking exercise.

This perhaps is not so surprising given the context of the UK’s increasingly performance-regulated university sector and a pervasive sense of academics doing daily battle to justify what they do.

Speaking to the wrong people?

And herein lies part of the problem, because opinion related to public engagement in universities tends to be dominated by academics. Far less prominent, if at all visible, is the opinion of the people whose job it is to “support” public engagement activity.

These are the people known as professional services staff, who are often much more informed on this matter than academics. This is because they have an understanding of public engagement as it occurs across an institution – not just limited to any one person or project.

Public engagement lets academics talk about their research and become more visible to their communities. Shutterstock

So with this in mind, we recently ran an online survey targeting these staff with responsibility for supporting public engagement in their universities. Our line of questioning was simple. We wanted to know what they considered to be the current and future state and status of public engagement in UK universities.

Impact agenda

Our research showed that respondents saw public engagement as being integral to the potential success of academics in gaining research council funding – where demonstrating “impact” is a mandatory requirement of the application process. In other words, academics have to show how their research has or is benefiting society.

Our respondents’ spoke of an increasing “impact agenda” in the UK’s higher education sector. This has led to public engagement being seen as integral in enabling academics to demonstrate both the social and economic impacts of their research.

An increase in institutional competitiveness was also cited as an important factor in the need for public engagement – along with the introduction of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.

Public engagement can act as a bridge between the university and the outside world. Shutterstock

The incorporation of impact as an evaluation factor in the REF was also credited in helping to increase the value of public engagement as an academic activity. And it was the opinion of many respondents that the REF might encourage academics to be more adventurous as they explore new ways to be “impactful”.

But fears were also raised that this “impact agenda” could potentially threaten the creative freedom associated with the best kinds of public engagement. Respondents reported feeling like the REF might end up restricting the kinds of activities pursued by academics to those deemed to be most “impactful”.

The value of engagement

Our study reveals a strong view that public engagement in UK universities is being dominated by its relationship with research evaluation and funding. It also highlights considerable variation in the role and identity of those who support its undertaking in universities – and the unequal ways with which it is valued by individuals and institutions.

Some claim that public engagement enriches the research process. Others see public engagement as helping academics to become better teachers. It’s also generally recognised as a bridge between the university and the outside world and a way for academics to talk to and become more visible in their public communities.

Our study only really scratches the surface of the ways public engagement is being supported or led in universities. But with suggestions that the terms of impact will broaden in the next REF, and that public engagement will play an even bigger role, it is clear that wider conversation with these missing voices will become even more urgent.