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We help universities engage with the public

Beyond the Beacons

The Beacon universities benefitted from strategic funding to invest in embedding culture change, and this trend has continued with the subsequent investment by RCUK in the Catalysts for Public Engagement and the Schools-University Partnership Initiative. But activity in the sector is not limited to those universities that have been successful in securing funding from these competitive schemes.

The NCCPE’s manifesto

The NCCPE launched a Manifesto for Public Engagement in 2011, and so far over 60 vice chancellors or principals have signed up to commit their institutions to providing high level strategic support for public engagement.

So how is the wider sector embracing the challenge of ‘culture change’ and the imperative to ‘embed’ public engagement in their institutions?

Recently the NCCPE brought together a high level group of senior leaders and funders to take stock. Generally, it was clear that universities are developing their own niches in Public Engagement, linked to their individual missions, and that different solutions to the question of how to embed are emerging that are equally distinct. A number of general principles also emerged:

  • The commitment to engagement in institutional strategy was seen to be critical
  • Most people agreed that the embedding of engagement should be seen as a ‘long game’ – evolution, rather than revolution. It was stressed that new ‘academic norms’ were emerging, and that many younger academics – who would be the middle and senior managers of the future – embraced engagement as a necessary and vital part of their professional identity
  • Several participants pointed to the vital role of dedicated staff / PE specialists. They provide a vital level of support and coordination, build networks inside and outside the institution, and help build skills and confidence. This has been transformational when delivered as a professional, skilled activity
  • Some institutions felt that they still had a long way to go in breaking down a silo mentality, and lacked an over-arching strategic purpose to embed engagement across their activities in research, teaching, KE and social responsibility. Others noted that particularly valuable conversations were occurring when the overlaps between teaching/research/engagement were examined, and this acted as a catalyst for innovation
  • There was broad consensus that tackling ‘middle managers’ was a priority – not just Heads of Department but also all professional staff including HR managers. Their potential to negatively influence extends beyond acting as ‘permafrost’ and squashing enthusiasm.  They need to be held accountable for implementing changes made at senior level to structures and processes such as promotions criteria, and perhaps be more actively involved in shaping these new policies so that they feel more ownership of them
  • A tension was noted in how to balance ‘centralising’ with ‘localising’ approaches to embedding PE. At one extreme sit central PE units, but these risk PE being perceived as something ‘they’ do. They can also limit what gets done by restricting engagement activity to the opportunities provided centrally, rather than encouraging researchers to create their own PE activities based on their specific interests and the audiences that are relevant to them. The other extreme is to allow a ‘thousand flowers to bloom’ within the university which ensures buy-in, but risks a lack of strategy and patchy coverage. Might there be an intermediate route?