This section looks at the external drivers for public engagement.
Universities are under increasing pressure to respond to external agendas, and to re-invent themselves to meet the needs of wider society. Public engagement puts universities on the front foot, demonstrating a proactive approach to:
- Accountability and transparency
- Values and purpose
- Trust and licence to practice
Accountability and transparency
Increasingly, institutions cannot hide but need to be open and transparent about what they are spending public money on – and why. Increasingly, external targets are being used to hold universities to account.
The process of public engagement – open, two-way conversations about what we do and why – help to build understanding and appreciation of the purposes that drive universities and the value of what they do, and help universities to better fit their work to the expectations of wider society.
Values and purpose
Increasingly, organisations are expected to be articulate about who they are and what they stand for: to ‘live’ their values. Many feel that in the last 30 years universities have lost their way in the pursuit of narrowly defined notions of excellence – and need to re-connect with their roots and to demonstrate more clearly their commitment to public good.
The values that drive public engagement – commitment to wider social benefit; to dialogue and to mutuality – are ones that help re-balance the modern university and to return it to its roots.
Trust is hard won and easily eroded – evidenced in crises like the MMR debate and the challenges to the work of climate scientists at UEA.
Public engagement is a mindset that acknowledges that the public have a genuine stake in the work of universities – and wisdom and sensitivities that must be listened to and acknowledged as part of the process of discovery. Investing the time to genuinely engage with the public is a critical way of negotiating universities’ precious licence to practice.
How knowledge is generated and consumed has seen massive change in the last 30 years – witness for instance the transformation of the media and the explosion of new ways of accessing and sharing expertise. In such a world, universities risk appearing out of touch and increasingly irrelevant.
Relevance can only be achieved through dialogue and interaction with the wider world. Public engagement makes a huge contribution - through open-ended, curiosity-driven conversations and collaborations which respect the insights, experiences and expertise of the wider public, and in the process enrich the focus, clarity and relevance of research and teaching.
There are growing pressures on universities to demonstrate their responsiveness. It is less and less possible for any public institution or business to offer their services on their own terms, and there is an increasing drive to shape public services along consumerist lines. Students, the wider public, policy makers are all increasingly making their voices heard about the future of universities.
At the root of these changes is a re-balancing of power between institutions and citizens. Public engagement helps universities respond positively – by building relationships animated by dialogue, partnership and co-production, rather than simply by customer satisfaction.