Bounceback in days UK academics spend at public events

Data reveals the amount of days academics devote to public events, but have scholars become ‘apathetic’ towards civic engagement activities?

April 12, 2024
Source: iStock/ kasto80

The time that UK academics spend on public events has risen to the highest level since before the pandemic, figures suggest, with the average institution recording almost 400 days of staff time last year.

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) captures in days the amount of time that academics gave to social, community and cultural engagement activities, such as lectures, performance festivals and exhibitions.

The figures show that academics across the sector as a whole recorded 86,818 days of public events in 2022-23 – an average of 393 days for each provider.

Of this total, 22 per cent of time was spent on performance arts, 18 per cent on public lectures, 15 per cent on exhibitions, and 3 per cent on museum education.

The remaining 42 per cent was time given to alternative public events held by providers that could be categorised.

Analysis by Times Higher Education shows how levels of public engagement in the UK the sector have changed over time.

When including only providers that reported data every year, the total amount of academic time spent on public events rose by 14 per cent year-on-year – the third successive annual increase.

But this was still 20 per cent less time than in the peak year, 2018-19, before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Campus resource: How to make public engagement work for early career academics

Richard Watermeyer, professor of higher education at the University of Bristol, said many academics have become “apathetic, agnostic, even potentially antagonistic” towards the kinds of performance-led public engagement activities that are recorded in Hesa data.

“They see it as an adulteration and exploitation of the relationships they have outside of the university, which they commit to out of sight, without record, or want of recognition or reward, or institutional interference,” he said.

About three-quarters of the sector’s public events last year were free; the rest charged a fee – with performance arts events the most likely to ask for a  payment.

Professor Watermeyer said the “bean-counting” around public engagement should be dropped and academics left to get on with the business of making a difference to and with their public communities.

ProviderExhibitionsMuseum educationOtherPerformance artsPublic lecturesTotal

The Hesa figures show that while some providers recorded no data for public events, academics at the University of Birmingham allocated 3,934 days to these activities in 2022-23 – the equivalent of 11 years.

This was followed by the Royal College of Music (3,810 days) and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) (3,488 days).

Rachel O’Reilly, pro-vice chancellor at Birmingham, said: “Through our research, we work for the public good, helping to make the world a better and fairer place. It is therefore important that universities and academics engage with the public in order to help shape research, reflect and respond to different perspectives, and share the benefits of the research.

“At the University of Birmingham, we are committed to supporting public engagement, we have world-class cultural attractions that are open to the public, and our civic mission is a core pillar of our university strategy.”

But Professor Watermeyer, who is also co-director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformations, warned that institutionalised public engagement could contribute to exploitative labour practices in universities.

Many academics who commit to institutionalised public engagement, who tend to be more junior or in the early stages of their careers, are compromised in terms of their institutional capital, where public engagement, despite all the fuss, remains a marginal and poorly invested institutional activity.

“These are also those whose employment is more insecure and who are most easy to let go.”

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