Embedding public engagement in higher education
Public engagement describes the many ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research is shared with, and informed by, the public.
The focus on public engagement - of developing an outward facing, mutually beneficial exchange with society - is of huge importance to IDS, and is a value that underpins our vision and mission. So we welcome a new report which reveals key considerations for anyone wanting to put public engagement into practice in higher education.
The report 'Embedding public engagement in higher education' is co-authored by IDS Fellow, Professor Danny Burns. It presents findings from a major action research project designed to understand how we can create long-lasting culture change to embed public engagement as a valuable activity for university staff and students. The report had wide-ranging input from over 40 institutions, including from academics, heads of department, senior university management, human resource representatives, students and members of the Beacons for Public Engagement.
Professor Danny Burns was the academic director and lead facilitator for the project. He said, 'What we have created is an overview of the issues, tensions and dilemmas faced by those people charged with implementing public engagement; from those putting in place the support mechanism to those wanting to do it. This is a valuable resource for anyone wanting to put public engagement into practice in higher education.'
The report highlights a number of complex issues that can be obstacles to achieving culture change:
- Values: Public engagement needs to be grounded in a university’s own values and not simply aligned to current policy drivers such as the Research Excellence Framework. Developing a public engagement strategy starts with a clearly articulated mission of the university’s social contribution.
- Risk and control: Reputational risk was not perceived to be any greater for public engagement activity. There was a greater risk in trying to put too many corporate controls around the activity and killing off grass roots enthusiasm.
- Bureaucracy: The slow moving bureaucratic planning processes in universities are not well suited to public engagement which requires more speed and flexibility. There is a tension between the increasing centralisation of university systems and the discretion to manage at the department level – the latter being critical to both developing and supporting public engagement.
- Focus on team leaders: It was agreed that building rewards and incentives for public engagement into appraisal and promotion criteria was important, but focusing attention on heads of departments, research team leaders and curriculum development leaders was more so. If front-line managers are committed to PE then it is much more likely to happen.
- Resentment: It is important that the impact on colleagues not doing public engagement is thought through when developing strategies. When academics secure funding to buy themselves out of teaching to do public engagement projects, the funding is rarely sufficient to backfill teaching administration. This then falls to colleagues with already heavy workloads, which can lead to resentment.
- Embedded but recognised: Public engagement should be embedded into teaching and research but also needs to be recognised in its own right to ensure that the support is available to build the networks and offer appropriate skills development and practical assistance.
The report is launched at the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE's) conference on 29 November 2011.
View the full report at www.publicengagement.ac.uk/publications
Professor Danny Burns is an IDS Research Fellow and Team Leader of the Participation, Power and Social Change team.
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