What's next for the Engage Conference?

Engage 2018 at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh

Heather Lusardi, Senior Project Manager at the NCCPE, reflects on feedback from our most recent Engage Conference and what this means for Engage 2019.

2018 was the NCCPE’s biggest Engage Conference yet, and saw us take the conference to the wonderful city of Edinburgh. Feedback tells us there is lots to celebrate about the event, but has also raised some interesting questions.

How big should Engage be?

As a key meeting place for those passionate about engagement within a higher education context, there is a huge demand for places at Engage, which sells out within three weeks, and has a long waiting list. In 2018 we increased capacity to 350, but the increased numbers can cause issues for some delegates attending: spaces feel more crowded and noisy, it can be harder to connect with individuals, and it can mean missing out on your preferred workshops.

Should we try to accommodate the growing numbers of people wanting to attend? How do we do this without compromising the distinctive qualities of the event?

What kind of venue is right for Engage?

We try to find spaces that can accommodate enough people in plenary and in workshops. It’s typically not possible to use university venues during term time so it often means the only option is a centrally-located hotel. With help from the Edinburgh Beltane Network, we chose the Assembly Rooms for Engage 2018. As a venue owned and run by the city council, committed to sustainability and steeped in the community heritage of Edinburgh, this felt right. However there weren’t enough breakout spaces to accommodate Engage’s fantastic delegate-led workshops. So we embedded table discussions in the heart of plenary sessions, and used the nearby Balmoral Hotel, which offered very reasonable meeting room rates, making cost savings by having the majority of workshops during one half day of Engage. Whilst this worked for many, the split site venue was less popular for some. There also were concerns that the venues looked 'too expensive'. Despite appearances, we always choose the most reasonably priced venues offering a suitable space (accessible, light, flexible etc.), and we don’t make a surplus from Engage.

Do you have any suggestions of venues that could accommodate everyone, for a reasonable price?

Does Engage try to cover too much ground?

Engage is the only national conference focused on public engagement in UK higher education and our delegates come from a broad range of disciplinary and practice backgrounds, from different types of institutions and different stages of career. As the sector is maturing, what people want is changing. New people are joining the sector, needing different things to those who have been involved for many years. Our formal evaluation suggests that everyone finds Engage useful and enjoyable, but those who have been previously tend to find it less enjoyable or useful than those attending for the first time. We’ve tried to curate the conference with the diverse needs of the delegates in mind, but it’s difficult to hold a space for those with more experience, without making others feel excluded.

We know from delegate feedback, and Kimberley Freeman’s excellent blog about attending Engage as an introvert, that as the conference gets bigger there is less room for more reflective spaces. We're keen to develop a conference that values and enables different engagement preferences.

How can we meet the needs of an increasingly differentiated audience, with different levels of experience and different motivations? How can we design the event to meet the needs of introverts and extroverts alike?

Where are the communities?

Since our first Engage we have encouraged speakers from outside higher education to contribute their insights and experience. We have offered a range of support, including free places, bursaries (for travel and accommodation), discounted tickets, and even options for academic community partnerships to come on a shared ticket. When the theme of Engage has had resonance, we have seen this reflected in the delegates who choose to come.

However the main issues relate to who Engage could or should be for? The current shape of the conference reflects the submissions we receive. Participants tell us that they want to talk about: career progression; engaged scholarship; engagement in practice; REF, TEF, KEF and other policy drivers; culture change within higher education; festivals etc. These topics are clearly important to those working in universities, but aren’t necessarily of interest, or of value, to communities.

To what extent could or should Engage be a community focused event, where the community organisations set the agenda? Or should we be co-creating new places, or joining places where these conversations are happening?

As we plan Engage 2019, please tell us what you think by making a comment below or contact me via heather.lusardi@uwe.ac.uk.

Engage 2019 will take place on 4th & 5th December at the City Marriott Hotel in Bristol.

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