What is public engagement?

Explore the many ways people make sense of engaging the public with their work.
Credit: Writing Back, University of Leeds

Public engagement is a term that is widely used in a variety of sectors, from arts and heritage to science policy and local government. Whilst in some sectors it has a precise definition, in others it is used more flexibly. Following a consultation with colleagues across the higher education sector, the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) has chosen to define public engagement broadly, to encompass the many and varied ways university staff and students engage with others outside the institution. There are a whole family of different types of engagement, for instance 'civic' or 'community' engagement, which are part of the same family. 

Our definition

"Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit."

Mutual benefit is an important part of our definition as we are keen to emphasise that high quality public engagement benefits all those involved. Benefits might include learning, developing new skills, gaining new insights or ideas, developing better research, raising aspiration, or being inspired.  

Types of engagement

Public engagement is multi-faceted. In our review of the REF case studies in 2014 we discovered lots of terms that people use when describing public engagement with research. These included outreach, patient-involvement, collaborative research, citizen science, participatory arts, lifelong learning, community engagement, and engagement with partners. In addition universities engage through community based learning, widening participation, corporate social responsibility etc. Whilst the purposes behind these approaches, and the processes, are different, what they all have in common is describing an aspiration to better connect the work of universities and research institutes with society.

Our website is packed full of information about public engagement. You can find case studies of engagement; check in on our latest competition winners; or find out the tools and techniques to do engagement well. 

Supporting engagement

There are significant amounts of public engagement activity happening involving universities. From outreach to collaborative research projects, staff and students are involved in lots of interesting projects. However, whilst many are committed to the value of high quality engagement, the culture of higher education can feel less than supportive. Our support engagement pages contain everything you need to know about this important area of our work.