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PE at the University of Bristol

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Who: Centre for Public Engagement

What: Public Engagement at University of Bristol

Why: Establishing public engagement as part and parcel of the academic endeavour at Bristol

Where: University of Bristol

When: Ongoing  

Project description

Public engagement in most of its guises has been a feature of life at the University of Bristol for many years: a number of academic departments across the disciplines have amassed extensive experience of engagement with schoolchildren, adult learners and the general public, both directly and via the media, whilst students also have a distinguished track record of engagement with local communities of interest. In the 90s and early 00s though a feeling persisted that while public engagement may be a pleasant enough activity, it was peripheral and, worse, a potential distraction from the serious business of teaching and research.  

Professor Kathy Sykes discusses science with schoolchildren at the biennial festival of research led by the University in the city centre shopping centres.Purpose

Over the past five years sustained efforts have been made to counter this by establishing public engagement as part and parcel of the academic endeavour at Bristol - an essential thread that runs through the fabric of the University. 

Results and outcomes

What worked well

We have tried to avoid haraguing people about public engagement - central directives and earnest homilies tend to be counter-productive. Instead we have relied on:

  • Effective academic champions of public engagement. We are fortunate that Kathy Sykes, Professor of Sciences and Society, is on the staff at Bristol, together with others who are expert at making the subject come alive and who are encouraging more people to follow suit.  We also have a network of engagement representatives in departments and schools, who provide local championship and are conduits for communication across the University.
  • Mechanisms for sharing experiences of and ideas about public engagement, including forums which bring together people from within and outside the institution to develop fresh thinking and work collaboratively on issues that matter to the city.
  • Senior leadership of such forums and of the public engagement agenda in general. This means having a Pro Vice-Chancellor at the helm and a Vice-Chancellor who is vocal on the subject of the purpose and value of public engagement.
  • A small, highly professional central team to work on public engagement, focused particularly on giving practical support to academic departments in doing what they want to do and on sharing good practice.
  • Building public engagement into the institutional mind-set. Thus the University's Vision and Strategy describes an institution that is 'engaged with society's interests, concerns, priorities and aspirations' and includes a chapter on public engagement. The subject is also highlighted through presentations and discussions at meetings of the governing body and other key committees and celebrated in University publications and prizes.
  • A high-level, cross-University steering group that takes responsibility for championing the 'Engaged University' concept and values.
  • Abandoning the jargon of public engagement in favour of telling stories that bring the topic to life.
  • Ensuring that centrally-organised public engagement projects are relevant to the priorities and interests of both the University and external partners and communities. The objective is to build up a body of work that has shape, overall purpose and impact.

"Engagement activities work best when integrated into research and teaching.It makes more sense of staff time because it's feeding into a bigger picture and you're learning at the same time." Dr Shelley Hales, Senior Lecturer, Department of Classics and Ancient History

 "All this (engagement) experience enriches my teaching and research at the University and means that I have a much broader understanding of current concerns." Professor Ronald Hutton, Department of Historical Studies 

Key partners

We aim to work with a diverse variety of partners, across the city and beyond. Current key partners include the Watershed, Arnolfini, Knowle West Media Centre, members of the Bristol Natural History Consortium including the BBC, Bristol Zoo, Wildscreen, Bristol City Council, the Environment Agency and Defra, Bristol Cultural Development Partnership, At-Bristol, the University of the West of England and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement.  

What didn't work well

For public engagement to prosper, the link to research and teaching is key. Sometimes it can be challenging when trying to forge partnerships with new organizations to find an overlap in agendas, and to admit on occasion that there isn't one.  

Resources Required

At the University of Bristol, a small central department support public engagement across the University. The functions of this department are 3 fold – to overcome barriers and maximise opportunities for public engagement, to support individual academics with their engagement activities and run a programme of engagement in the city.

Strategic leadership of public engagement is provided by the Engaged University Steering Group. This group is chaired by a Pro Vice-Chancellor, and is knitted into the University Governance Structure.

Find out more about the ways in which staff and students from the university interact with the public in many different ways by downloading the publication, Public Engagement at the University of Bristol.Over a 100 case studies of engagement are available on University of Bristol's 'Public Engagement Stories'.

Professor Ron Hutton from the University&#039;s Historical Studies department gave a written testimony in the trial of a druid accused of carrying a dangerous weapon, which was his ceremonial sword.  Professor Hutton&#039;s evidence led to the case being dismissed.Top Tips

The organisers offer the following tips for anyone contemplating putting on or becoming involved with similar activity:

  • Centralised resource – a small team to drive the engagement agenda, and support academics, is in my view vital
  • A network of engagement representatives or engagement champions in departments/schools aids communication and sharing of best practice
  • An annual conference or meeting of people passionate about engagement, to celebrate their activities, helps keep a 'buzz' around activity
  • Weaving engagement in to high level meetings – visits from policy makers etc – helps promote what you are doing. We always do this in the context of research or teaching – so having an academic talk about their research and associated public engagement, rather than stand alone sessions on engagement
  • Having a high-level champion – in our case a Pro Vice-Chancellor


Name: Dr Maggie Leggett or Philippa Bayley

Name of organisation: University of Bristol

Email: Dr Maggie Leggett or Dr Philippa Bayley

Telephone: 0117 331 8313