Manchester Met outreach aims to meet public halfway

Hip programme targets the groups others cannot reach

September 12, 2013

Source: Alamy

Brains wanted: the Humanities in Public scheme aims to connect with people with no experience of higher education

Ghost hunts and zombie pub quizzes will form part of what Manchester Metropolitan University believes are groundbreaking efforts to target outreach at people with no prior connection to higher education.

According to Berthold Schoene, professor of English and director of Manchester Met’s Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research, universities’ public engagement efforts typically involve public lectures by visiting academics – “which are really for other academics”.

“That isn’t really outreach. The normal audience for this kind of thing would be the chattering classes. But we would like to reach others, particularly Neets [not in education, employment or training], who may then become interested in higher education,” he said.

To do so, the year-long Humanities in Public (Hip) programme, which launches this month, will push academics to meet the people halfway, Professor Schoene said.

“We have been thinking about what people already do in their spare time and how we could introduce higher education into those spaces,” he added.

The result is a series of off-campus activities such as city walks, pub quizzes and film screenings that Professor Schoene hopes will attract attendees to associated on-campus lectures, around which the university will attempt to create a “festival atmosphere” by framing them with performances by local dance and music groups.

Hip’s dozen or so themes, suggested by academics, include “contemporary Gothic”, “body images” and “21st century feminism”. The off-campus activities were devised by Helen Malarky, the institute’s recently recruited project manager and creative programme coordinator, a former administrator who is also doing a PhD in English.

“The problem with public engagement is that academics don’t have time to do things like that on top of everything else, so if universities want to take [outreach] seriously, they need to invest in additional posts. It has made a huge difference to what we do,” Professor Schoene said.

He predicted that many humanities and social science faculties would follow Manchester Met’s lead – not least to boost their income. Most events will be free, but Professor Schoene hopes that, if successful, the programme will attract significant commercial sponsorship.

“Other faculties are very good at [generating income from industry], but I don’t think the humanities can really do that. All they can do is more teaching. But I was keen to think of ways to make the most of the humanities identity. We are better at public engagement because the humanities are interesting and fascinating,” he said.

The “very positive feedback” Hip had already received indicated to him that the recent closure of many continuing education departments meant that “there are a lot of people out there desperate for some kind of intellectual, cultural stimulation”.

He admitted that most were middle class, but emphasised that they were welcome: “I am not telling the chattering classes not to come. That would be self-defeating. But hopefully there’ll be an interesting mix.”

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