Rules of engagement must be embraced for a long, happy future

Universities need to learn how to present themselves and their work to the public to ensure mutual understanding, says Paul Manners

November 24, 2011

Universities have never been in the public eye so much. The research "impact agenda" is posing tough questions about the relevance of university research. The huge hike in student fees is creating intense scrutiny of what "quality" and "value for money" look like in relation to the curriculum. The shift from public to private funding is raising profound questions about the public role of the university. Emerging areas of research - such as GM or nanotechnology - continue to provoke concern in society at large. And the 2009 Climategate scandal has demonstrated how exposed and vulnerable universities are to external challenge.

Meanwhile, Universities UK research last year showed that fewer than one in five people appreciated universities' wider social impact.

How should universities respond to this intense external and political interest, and the sometimes profound misunderstanding or ignorance about their purposes and value?

First, there are three things that universities should not do:

• Fight among ourselves. Too often when higher education is represented in the media, it is mission groups scoring points off each other.

• Make empty promises: crafting magnificent rhetorical flourishes in mission statements is a safe place to hide, but is unlikely to address the legitimate concerns or interests society has in university work.

• Hope that simple proxies of impact - such as trumpeting the economic return that universities generate - are enough to make the case for our value, or make the problem go away. There are no magic bullets.

What is needed is public engagement, not old-fashioned public relations or spin. We should not be aiming to "sell" the sector, but to engage in dialogue: equality, mutual respect and openness should underpin our work. This isn't always easy - ask any couple who have managed to turn an engagement into a life-enhancing and long-lasting partnership!

As a sector, higher education still has a long way to go to improve how it engages with the public. It has struggled to work together as a sector, with the mission groups tending to cut across each other's messages and purposes. And although lots of staff (and students) have naturally been drawn to engage with the public - through a love of their subject, a commitment to social justice, or as a route to enriching their research or teaching - these activities have not always been encouraged or supported, which is why schemes such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England's "Beacons for Public Engagement" and Research Councils UK's "Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research" have been established.

The Beacons have helped to demonstrate how higher education institutions need to embrace and encourage public engagement as a key survival strategy.

In their professional responsibilities, universities should be maximising the public benefit of what they do: whether this is researchers seeking to build user involvement into the design of projects, or share the passion and curiosity that drives their work; or teachers striving to develop an educational experience that communicates the best of the past while being sensitive to the emerging social and civic demands of the 21st century.

Engagement thrives on stories and conversation. Therefore it should be second nature for people who work in universities to articulate a coherent rationale for their work. But this needs to be supported by a robust evaluative framework that goes beyond the crude financial value that is often used to quantify the "public benefit" of universities. Recently, both UUK and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement have offered different models to measure the social value of universities. But neither can be applied as a sector-wide solution without real commitment from funders and universities to find an agreed way to do this, and to invest energy and effort in this area.

The good news is that there is now a strong movement towards public engagement. The "Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research" and the role for engagement in the research excellence framework illustrates its importance to the research agenda; "engaged" teaching is being seen as a key way to meet employability demands; knowledge exchange demands engagement and there are university staff who are greatly skilled in this; and the wider "public benefit" demanded of the sector is fuelled by engagement.

Now, more than ever, the purposes of higher education need to be widely debated and its contribution to broader social and public good made manifest.

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