Nottingham raises eyebrows over definition of 'public engagement'

Pro vice-chancellor's memo confuses duty with marketing, claim academics. Zoe Corbyn reports

August 21, 2008

The University of Nottingham's definition of "public engagement" as an activity akin to marketing has raised academic eyebrows.

The controversial definition appears in a memo from pro vice-chancellor Chris Rudd to heads of schools seeking academics to take part in an audit of the university's public and employer engagement activities.

The memo defined public engagement as: "The range of activities of which the primary functions are to raise awareness of the university's capabilities, expertise and profile to those not already engaged with the institution."

This should be done through providing opportunities for two-way flow of views between specialists and non-specialists, by helping researchers to understand the public perception of their research and by raising awareness of the institution's expertise, the memo added.

Some academics have objected to the definition, arguing that the premise for public engagement should be based on wider values than promoting the university.

"It is a big danger that engagement - which is a very important task - is reduced to spin," said Paul Younger, pro vice-chancellor (engagement) at Newcastle University. "The top line statement (in the Nottingham definition) appears to reduce public engagement to basically another way of marketing."

A Nottingham academic said the commissioners of the audit, which is being conducted by management consultants Arthur D Little and PL Murphy, appeared to have confused public engagement with general marketing efforts: "I am not sure that I see anything nefarious here so much as a certain amount of muddle."

Professor Rudd's memo says the aim of the audit is to "map out" current activities in public and employer engagement and recommend improvements to push the university to the forefront in the two areas.

The Nottingham definition goes against a brief for a £9.2 million "beacons for publication engagement" project that emphasises that "good" public engagement "does not include activities where the primary purpose is to generate approval or acceptance of the institution (such as might be carried out by an organisation's PR department)."

Funders are pushing for a "step-change in recognition for public engagement" at universities through the beacons project.

Six "beacons" at universities in Newcastle, Manchester, Norwich, London, Cardiff and Edinburgh have been established with cash from funding councils, research councils and the Wellcome Trust.

A Nottingham University spokesman said: "Anyone who questions the sincerity of our commitment to public engagement can be reassured that our principal reason for encouraging this work is to broaden and enhance levels of understanding, and to prompt contribution and debate from across society. We are consulting with a large number of colleagues ... this process is all about listening to views and informing what we do; views about definitions are wholly uncontroversial and welcomed in ongoing discussions within the university."

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