I read a report from a British university recently that proudly boasted that one million (yes, one million) people had benefitted from its engagement activities over the course of just one academic year. This, from a university in a city with a population of just over 120,000, a fifth of which are students. This bold claim of engagement might well have some truth to it, after all, a university city can be a famous place. Tourists might well flock to see its dreaming spires, however one million were engaged people in one year? I believe they might have had one million visitors, but to what extent were they engaged? Is it not time that universities had some sort of framework to measure public engagement beyond footfall? How much is the impact of 5,000 visits to the university museum worth to society versus a handful of members of the public working with academics on an diabetes or asthma study, where the participants leave with a better knowledge of their health condition, and perhaps a better quality of life? Which is better impact? Hundreds of happy faces leaving via the gift shop door? Or the few who support and benefit from potentially-world changing research? I’m not picking a fight with anyone here by the way. It’s not for me to say what is right or wrong. Maybe the correct answer is both. These are just my random thoughts on public engagement in response to Bud Hall’s thought-provoking blog ahead of Engage 2014. Almost all of what Bud says rings true to me, I cannot succinctly explain what I do in my work in public engagement and, like Bud, I certainly can’t find a decent definition of the role of public engagement. However I would say the definition of public engagement is one that needs to be explored further. Does allowing members of the community to look around your university museum or staff smiling politely at a passer-by at a community fete actually count as engagement? Some institutions appear to think this is fair. I’m not singling any out here but I’ve seen some universities’ representatives discussing “sticking a badge on it” so a museum visit counts towards this or that. I’ve also seen good universities excluded from public engagement events because they can only do the public engagement bit, not the public engagement with research element.
Like Bud says, there are some big problems with the world. We need to remember we are representing Higher Education. Some of this pandering to public engagement by numbers is a waste of time in my opinion. I think we have a responsibility to demonstrate actual impact or positive outcomes where we can. To this end I would support the idea of a policy for public engagement, where numbers or outcomes are recorded fairly to demonstrate a mutually beneficial exchange. The REF and demands by funders for demonstrations of short-term impacts are positive steps, but do they go far enough?
Admittedly, right now, I would not know where to start in terms of metrics and targets, but I do know that some of the most experienced people working in the field of higher education cannot define public engagement other than to say it’s working with communities or groups in some way, somehow. This needs defining in HE. It could be the catalyst towards agreeing a framework of potential outcomes to work towards. I’m convinced the demonstrations of our impacts of our work would be greater and the true value of higher education and research would be promoted like never before, if we all knew for sure what public engagement meant and how we should best demonstrate it. I’m at the early stages of research into some of these ideas – so watch this space!
In answer to Bud’s questions
- What does engagement mean in your work?
In my work engagement means meaningful exchanges between the university and the community which deliver a benefit to both parties.
- What does engaging people mean to you?
I want people to engage with me. I want my work to be considered interesting and, particularly, I want to demonstrate Higher Education and Research as a Public Good.
- Who are the people that are the most difficult for you to engage with?
There are no rules here. If I could engage the local media in the bigger picture sometimes, that would be useful. The easiest answer would be busy academics or unemployed residents who do not speak English as a first language, but it has been achieved!
- What has been a positive experience for you in engaging with people?
Every time I see impact or receive positive feedback, it feels very rewarding.
* Accompanying photograph shows a participant in diabetes research with a PhD student at De Montfort University, Leicester.