Universities engaging with society: the UK story

Map of the world

Image: Nicolas Raymond

What do a musical rocking chair, a grandfather clock that reveals what others are doing at the same time across the world, and a football stadium-sized balloon pumping particles into the atmosphere have in common? On first glance, very little, but they were all discussed as part of a recent event in London looking at public engagement with higher education.

Universities engaging with society: the UK story, run by the NCCPE and British Council, was part of Going Global – an international conference that brought delegates from around the world to explore the changing landscape for higher education. Delegates representing a range of countries and contexts including Nigeria, Columbia, Canada, Zimbabwe and the USA signed up to the event to find out more about what was happening in the UK, and to share their perspectives on engagement in their context. Delegates were treated to a range of presentations, provocative questions and table discussions.  A full list of speakers and their roles is included at the end of this post, along with their presentations.

  • Paul Manners explored the policy context for engagement, and delegates discussed how these differed in different country contexts. John Womersley and Steven Hill introduced the current funding structure in the UK and why engagement is a critical part of this landscape. We reflected on the REF and the need to explore how engagement has fared during the REF 2014 – something the NCCPE is currently doing a piece of research to look at. Sophie Duncan then introduced the ideas of an engaged university – summarised in the diagram. 

  • Richard Owen, Jack Stilgoe and Simon Burrall challenged us to think about the global implications of responsible research and innovation in terms of ethical decision making; public participation; and open access. (It was here we considered the controversial suggestion by scientists that global warming could be reduced by simulating the effect of a volcano – and positioning large balloons around the world pumping particles into the atmosphere.)

  • Keri Facer introduced the Connected Communities Project, and raised several challenges including the potential capture of the university research practice by those groups best able to find time and resource to collaborate, eroding academic responsibility to research on behalf of all citizens, not just those they are collaborating with. The Connected Communities programme is also showing how important it is to enable the building and development of long term research relationships, and to include civil society and community groups in early stage research development. Keri reminded us of the importance of the arts and humanities in challenging prevalent narratives, and providing new ways of seeing and doing. The rocking chair and clock featured here. 

  • The afternoon focussed on how universities need to change the ways that they work to support more engaged ways of doing research. Simon Gaskell, reflecting on his role as Principal of Queen Mary, University of London, encouraged us to be true to our principles – that engagement is a key part of what it means to be a university, and whilst other agendas compete to utilise engagement to serve particular ends, we need to take a bird’s eye view, and consider what universities are for. Delegates went on to explore why some universities view their engagement activites as a third 'leg' of their mission, whilst others are trying to embed this engagement into their work and not treat it as a separate strand of activity. 

  • Catalyst and Beacon colleagues shared their experiences of developing cultures for engagement – exploring the role of senior level champions, promotions criteria and effective communications. Core to the discussions was understanding your purpose as an institution, and ensuring that your engagement was aligned to this. We shared the NCCPE's culture change resources and invited delegates to reflect on their applicability in their very different contexts.  

  • Juliet Millican introduced delegates to the University of Brighton's Community University Partnership Programme (Cupp), and in reflecting on their remarkable 10-year story reminded us to ‘define by the doing’ – rather than trying to figure everything out before you start. By acting, reflecting and learning they have developed really effective partnerships with the community.

  • We closed the event with a stimulating discussion that considered the potential to learn from one another. We looked at the soon-to-be-launched Research for All Journal, and the potential for future meetings. Sarah Churchwell joined other colleagues to summarise the event – as a stimulating opportunity to learn from others, and to reflect on our own work.

The event provided a really humbling opportunity to learn about higher education in other countries and some of the very dramatic challenges colleagues are facing across the world. It reminded us of the importance of universities both reaching out, as well as inviting in – and that those who were really making a difference remained true to their purposes and values.

List of speakers:

  • Simon Burall, Director of Dialogue, Sciencewise

  • Sarah Churchwell, professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities, University of East Anglia.

  • Sophie Duncan, Deputy Director, National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement

  • Keri Facer, Professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol

  • Helen Featherstone, Head of Public Engagement, University of Bath

  • Simon Gaskell: President and Principal of Queen Mary University, London

  • Steven Hill, Head of Research Policy, HEFCE

  • Rick Holliman, Champion for Public Engagement with Research, Open University

  • Paul Manners, Director, National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement

  • Juliet Millican, Deputy Director (Academic) Community University Partnership Programme, University of Brighton

  • Richard Owen, Associate Dean of Research and Knowledge Transfer and Chair of Responsible Innovation, University of Exeter

  • Jack Stilgoe, Lecturer in Social Studies of Science at University College London

  • Suzanne Spicer, Social Responsibility Manager, University of Manchester 
  • Charlotte Thorley, Executive Officer for Public Engagement
  • John Womersley, CEO STFC and RCUK Champion for Public Engagement

You can find the PowerPoint slides from the day here.

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