Where are we with public engagement in universities in the UK?

7th December 2012

I spoke at the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement conference in Bristol yesterday, and posed an important question – “Where are we with public engagement in universities in the UK?”

The role universities can play in inspiring, fostering and supporting a lifelong learning culture in our society remains largely un-tapped and good public engagement is an essential part of changing that.

You might expect me to think that this is important, given that I run NIACE, but I think there are many reasons why others should think this is important too. At its simplest, learning is important in empowering people to become active citizens, maximise their talents, get and stay in work, support their families, be part of our society and be resilient to the changes which happen around all of us.

Currently, access to these benefits is very unequal and a key issue is socio-economic class which is a major determinant of participation and achievement in learning. At NIACE we do a survey every year of about 6000 people, asking questions about attitudes to and participation in learning – we have been doing this since 1996, so we have a good longitudinal set of data. These surveys show many things, including that people from socio-economic classes A and B are twice as likely to participate in learning as those in classes D and E.

We also know that if at least one of your parents has a degree then you are much more likely to participate in learning and go on to achieving a degree, than if neither of your parents have a degree. Both of these inequalities are stark and wrong for all sorts of reasons.

My proposition is a simple one – that universities have a duty and responsibility to help overcome these longstanding inequalities and they have the capacity to do that, in partnership and working with others. They can do it, and sometimes do, through good public engagement to inspire, engage, build confidence and break down the barriers to learning.

I would go one stage further and suggest that failure to achieve good public engagement with this aim is not benign, because failure to do it reinforces and perhaps even enhances the mythology, elitism and ‘otherness’ of universities in the eyes and minds of so many people in our society – people who do not believe that the university is for them, that they are clever enough to engage with it, who do not have the confidence to engage and learn.

So, despite all of the enthusiasm, energy and examples of great practice on show at yesterday’s conference, and amongst all of the people there I am suggesting that there is not enough being done. I am also suggesting that there needs to be greater clarity about the purpose of public engagement in universities, about what it is for, about what good public engagement would look like and how it is justified as a priority. For me, it cannot be sufficient for public engagement to be about attracting more students or sharing research findings. It has to be more.

This brings me to my simple conclusion which is that we need to ask some fundamental questions about what universities are for beyond research and teaching and ask whether fostering and supporting lifelong learning in their communities is part of that purpose.



Tony Coughlan

December 7th, 2012 at 11:54 am

Thanks for this David – I can think of many academics who will agree with you. Do you think this recent paper is a constructive way forward? ‘Reaching Out with OER: The New Role of Public-Facing Open Scholar’ [http://elearningeuropa.info/en/article/Reaching-Out-with-OER%3A-The-New-Role-of-Public-Facing-Open-Scholar]

Chris Minter

December 11th, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I think that you ask a very good question, David, but over the last deacde or more there have been major pressures to stop universities from engaging as some might wish to do. Certainly their involvement in continuing education has increasingly become post-graduate CPD rather than a more traditional lifelong learning. If you set up an inquiry into ‘Universities and their Communities’ I guess it would look very different to the recent one on Colleges. I have often seen universities within the umbrella of a learning city or a learning & skills sector but practical engagement has been more difficult to pin down.

alastair clark

December 19th, 2012 at 9:40 am

On first reading your post David I thought, like Tony, that the growing interest in Open Educational Practice (OEP) needs to be acknowledged as having a potentially powerful role to play in bringing the expertise of HE to a wider audience of adult learners in the community.

. I am sorry to say that many grand OEP gestures amount to little more than the electronic equivalent of pinning a small note on the library door saying ‘anyone is welcome to come in and read all the books’.

I was pleased to see in Tony’s paper that his ‘Stage 2? is the identification of actual needs of communities. However, I would say that real opening of HE in a meaningful way comes from dialogue not ‘needs research. Guess what- communities have a lot to offer as well as take!

Two cheers for OEP – but three cheers dialogue.