culture change, quality practice

PEP Insights Research report is out: The impact of COVID-19 on public engagement

updated on 29 Sep 2023
7 minutes

Explore findings and recommended actions to inform a revitalised approach to how the Higher Education sector engages with society.

Hands holding a banner with 'culture change' written on it

29 / 09 / 2021

Following an in-depth research study into the impact of COVID-19 on UK public engagement, the NCCPE is pleased to share findings and recommended actions to inform a revitalised approach to how the Higher Education sector engages with society.

In December 2020, with significant input from the public engagement community, the NCCPE set out to explore the experiences of UK public engagement professionals (PEPs) and how the engagement work of universities has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has had a major impact on policy and practice across the UK higher education sector. It has presented extraordinary challenges, but it has also presented opportunities to learn, to rethink our approaches and to inform new futures for public engagement. The knowledge and expertise of PEPs – the people often at the forefront of advocating for and brokering public engagement – is key to building on these opportunities. So, it was crucial to better understand their experiences, the stresses placed on them, their work and institutions, and the strategies they used to adapt their practices.

The NCCPE recruited a PEP Insights Peer Research team – a team of PEPs from across the UK - to collaborate on this mixed-methods research study. From December 2020 to March 2021, a survey, focus groups, and one-to-one semi-structured interviews were conducted with PEPs working within a higher education context.

Here, we have provided a sneak peek of the findings and insights that have arisen from our research. Download our short report below for an in-depth summary of the findings.

There are also two additional reports for those who want to explore further, including the full PEP Insights Research Report, which provides a full analysis of the data, and the PEP Insights Research Survey Report, which includes graphs of the quantitative data, and a summary of the qualitative data.

What did we discover?

Many of the experiences that PEPs shared with us echoed how the pandemic affected other professionals in HE and other sectors, including the move to online, the challenges associated with lockdown, and the changes to working practices. So, we focused our analysis on three themes which emerged from the data that were specific to public engagement:

Universities’ commitment to public engagement

“I feel we've done a lot to support our community throughout Covid. PE is being recognised as a priority and steps are being taken to level up our university’s PE contributions”.

Whilst all universities took steps to address the impacts of the pandemic, they did not always deploy their public engagement expertise in doing so. Those institutions with a clear understanding of the purposes and value of engagement drew on their public engagement capability to navigate the pandemic more effectively. Unsurprisingly, this was much less likely to happen in institutions where engagement is viewed as a ‘nice to have’ extra. In effect, the pandemic ‘stress tested’ universities’ commitment.

Whilst most institutions were perceived to have at least maintained their pre-pandemic commitment to public engagement, for some public engagement fell down the list of institutional priorities in place of short-term financial and research goals. Others rapidly mobilised during the pandemic to open up their spaces and resources to local communities, and to enhance public understanding of Covid research. It was interesting to see some institutions increasing their commitment, with reasons such as the Black Lives Matter movement and KEF cited, alongside the impact of the pandemic.

The nature of public engagement (its purposes and practices)

 “There are spaces where we have been able to do more - engaging with groups that are online and creating digital versions of projects that have a bigger reach”. (Survey)

"A lot of our engagement has been more science communication and transmitting information rather than working in an engaging way". (Focus Group, 29)

The biggest change for PEPs was the need and opportunity to do online engagement. People quickly (sometimes too quickly) embraced this new way of working, whilst also recognising the need to develop and enhance skills in online engagement.

Whilst for many online engagement opened up new possibilities (for instance, reaching new or larger audiences), PEPs were rightly concerned about digital exclusion and the need to address inequalities. Many advocated for maintaining the best of digital engagement, complemented by in-person and hyper-local approaches.

Many PEPs shared a concern that the large participant numbers that could be achieved with some forms of online engagement were becoming an unhelpful proxy of value amongst university managers. Some PEPs felt that the pandemic led to a fixation with science communication – in response to demands for information about the science of the pandemic – overshadowing more collaborative modes of engagement.

The nature of the PEP role and how the challenges PEPs face have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

“I think this whole period has been a bit of a wakeup call in terms of being much more proactive, being much more visible and not just assuming because you do really good work, people will see and know that.” (Interview)

The research highlighted the huge creativity of the PEP community. We were reminded of the expertise, resilience and creativity of PEPs working across disciplines. Many were able to utilise their specific skills to support their institution to work effectively during the pandemic. Some said the pandemic shifted support in a positive way with senior decision makers having a renewed appreciation for public engagement.

However, it uncovered the challenges faced by PEPs, challenges that are often shared with other ‘third space’ professionals. For many PEPs these were a ‘perfect storm’ which had a profound impact on their emotional wellbeing. These included the loss of opportunities for informal meetings (a key currency of PEP practice); compromised relationships with their public and professional partners; having to work at the edge of their capacity without space to reflect or delegated authority to take decisions; a lack of recognition for their contributions; lack of funding and, for some, a lack of adequate support at a senior level.

What does the future hold?

Working with the PEP Research Insights team, and drawing on the research, we have identified four priority actions.

Scale up of practices that tackle exclusion: The pandemic has brought the impact of inequalities into sharp focus, but it has also motivated universities to develop more inclusive practices, such as co-production and community listening. There is a need for universities to scale up these practices whilst proactively taking action on the systemic issues which drive exclusion. 

Bringing clarity to complexity: Institutions must clarify their commitment to and strategy for public engagement, which has to come hand-in-hand with clear guidance from funders about their expectations.

Make the invisible visible: PEPs – in common with many other professional services staff – are often in roles where their contribution is not clearly valued or understood. In the context of renewed interest in research culture, it is vital that steps are taken to address the effects of this, and to maximise the impact and influence of PEPs and other ‘third space’ professionals.

Resource effectively: There is no shortage of aspiration about the public role of universities, but resourcing often falls far short of need. This impacts on the quality and scope of the work PEPs can realise, and places significant strain on people and projects. This gap between ambition and actual investment needs to be collectively addressed by both funders and university leaders.

“Short-term funding of PE is a huge problem and that is something that should be addressed, because I’m not sure we have the resources to commit to meaningful PE”. (Focus Group)

The challenges that the research revealed need to be faced head on. They require systemic change, involving all those in the engagement ecosystem. We must work together to ensure that our collective experiences during the pandemic lead to a stronger, more resilient and more purposeful agenda for public engagement, that addresses exclusion, and realises benefits for all those involved.

Explore further

Important to note:

The HE engagement ecosystem is diverse and those working to facilitate engagement in higher education institutions represent different roles, experiences, forms of engagement, and types of employment Our definition of ‘PEP’ covers anyone with roles relating to public engagement, whether they call themselves a public engagement professional or wear a different title. The majority of respondents have a public engagement with research role, so that was the main focus of our findings.