The benefits of public engagement to universities and to the public

Public engagement brings a host of benefits - to universities, to their staff and students, and to the wider public.  We've distilled some of the growing body of evidence that demonstrates the tangible impact that engagement can create.  Follow the links to find out more and to access downloadable 'fact sheets'. 

Impact on your university

Public engagement can make a long term and strategic impact on your institution

It enriches the institution's research, teaching and learning

Interaction with the public can demonstrably improve the quality of work undertaken in HEIs. Not only do the public challenge, enrich and broaden academic thinking, but projects that have been defined and researched in partnership with the public invariably result in greater impact and relevance.  Engagement can also enrich the curriculum in numerous ways.  Download the evidence

It helps HEIs to demonstrate accountability in a climate of increasing scrutiny

Universities and research institutes receive billions of pounds of public money. Society and politicians are increasingly prepared to challenge investment in public services. Through public engagement, the sector can demonstrate its openness, transparency and accountability and ensure that there is well-informed debate and dialogue about future investment. Download the evidence

It strengthens and enriches the university's brand and identity, and can increase public appreciation and support for higher education and for research

People are cynical about old fashioned marketing and branding. They increasingly base their judgements on personal experience and on the views of their trusted peers. Public engagement demonstrates a university's willingness to listen and to change, and can provide a safe space for dialogue and debate, meeting a demand for authentic and stimulating experiences. In the process it helps to build genuine understanding and appreciation of the sector. Download the evidence

Impact on your students and staff

Embracing public engagement can transform the educational experience of students, and stimulate and develop your staff.

It motivates and develops staff and students

The vast majority of staff and students believe they have a duty to explain their work and its social and ethical implications to the public. Through engaging with the wider public, they develop a range of transferable skills, for instance in leadership, communication, listening, partnership working and project management. Download the evidence.

It enriches the student experience

Students are looking for a higher education experience that is relevant to the needs of today's society and that will equip them for their future lives and careers: 49% of students surveyed in 2010 had volunteered in the previous year – with 95% motivated by a desire to improve things or help people. Ensuring they can access a range of formal and less formal opportunities to engage with the public, for instance through volunteering, provides students with the kind of socially committed higher education they demand; it also develops their employability and life skills. Download the evidence.

It helps to sensitise HEIs and their staff and students to social and ethical issues, and to stay 'in tune' with wider social concerns

Three quarters of the public believe that academics should listen more to what ordinary people think and over half believe that scientists pay insufficient attention to potential risks. Seeking to discuss issues with the public and to listen to their aspirations and concerns is a requirement in the new Universal Ethical Code. Engaging with the public helps staff and students to better understand these kinds of social and ethical concerns and the implications for their own work. Download the evidence.

Impact on civil society

Public engagement helps universities maximise the benefits of their work to society – helping them to keep abreast of public concerns and expectations and to support real-world problem solving. 

Public engagement helps to maximise the flow of knowledge and learning between HEIs and society

Universities – through their staff, students and facilities – possess huge potential to catalyse learning and innovation in wider society.  Strategic investment in public engagement helps to maximise this potential by focusing attention and support on the multiple, often informal, ways in which universities enrich the lives of the wider public. Download the evidence.

It contributes to social justice and corporate responsibility and can lead to a range of positive social outcomes

By embedding public engagement into their work, universities are better able to respond to social need locally, nationally and globally. They can make a positive contribution to social justice, and develop more effective ways to support people to make a difference. Download the evidence.

It can help to build trust and mutual understanding

Trust is critical to a healthy higher education system and to its licence to practice, but it is difficult for trust to take root unless there are opportunities for the public to engage with universities’ work. Over three quarters of the public agree that 'we ought to hear about potential new areas of science and technology before they happen, not afterwards'. Engagement creates space for trust and understanding to grow, at a time when deference to authority and professional expertise is decreasing. Download the evidence.

It generates unforeseen outcomes, and stimulates creativity and innovation

One of the most profound joys of public engagement is its unpredictability: fresh perspectives, challenging questions, lateral insights - all can help to sharpen thinking, release precious energy and creativity and unlock new collaborations and resources: 

"Public engagement sets in motion the most amazing things you can't predict", Dr Anne Cooke, Bristol Neuroscience, University of Bristol.


What next?

Find out more about the funding and policy landscape for public engagement and about how public engagement helps universities to face the future