The phrase ‘public engagement’ doesn’t always sit easily on academics’ lips.  It’s often seen as a bit of an add-on, something you do on a Saturday morning.  Some see it as an exercise in dumbing down; and for some academics, it seems, public engagement is nothing more or less than a waste of time.

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell wants to change that perception.  “At the British Science Association,” she said mid-way through her Presidential Address at the British Science Festival in Swansea, “I couldn’t fail to comment on the importance of universities and public engagement.”  In its most obvious sense – holding a public conversation about science and its place in society – Professor Rothwell sees engagement as an obligation to the people who fund universities – most importantly, to tax payers.  But she also sees it as an opportunity to help students, staff and alumni.  Public engagement improves teaching and research, helps universities connect to their local communities and sharpens scientists’ communication skills.  For all those reasons, she feels that universities should manage public engagement as a core activity: it should be properly funded, with proper training, recognition and reward.  Academics should be assessed on their public engagement work as part of their performance review.  And universities should publicly commit to supporting, valuing and rewarding public engagement.

Indeed, Professor Rothwell sees public engagement as part of a wider sense of universities’ social responsibility – which is, along with research and teaching, one of the three core goals of the University of Manchester, of which she is President and Vice-Chancellor.  “I think,” she said, “we need to treat public engagement and social responsibility with the same rigour that we treat other activities.”   And that point brought her to the core message of her address, which had taken as its theme the question, “What are universities for?”

Universities exist, she believes, for the public good.

Fine words.  But Professor Rothwell didn’t shy away from the challenges that universities face in enriching society.  Engagement, from this perspective, includes every aspect of a university’s work: its teaching; its research; its contribution to the national economy; its collaborations with companies and others to solve the world’s most pressing problems.  How should universities engage with their societies?  And what should they stand for?  Professor Rothwell courageously tackled these questions. 

She took as her starting point the Humboldtian concept of a research university: an institution that creates citizens of the world by developing their powers of reasoning in an environment of academic freedom.  She painted a picture of universities as places of enquiry and scholarship, of free speech and challenge, independent of differences political, cultural or religious – in her words, as the conscience of society.

That ideal, she believes, has become entangled in a mass of contradictions and tensions.  Some universities are public, others private; some businesses, others charities.  Some are proudly local; others glory in their international status.  “Can there even be a single idea of a university?” she asked.  “It’s important that each university considers the clarity of its function and its distinctiveness.”

Professor Rothwell put the question another way: who are universities for?  A host of stakeholders – students, employees, funders, donors, governments, local communities – bring different expectations of a university.  “Each believes they have a share in us,” said Professor Rothwell, adding – with perhaps less conviction – “and, probably, they do.”  There’s much talk now of ‘the multiversity’, all things to all people – a notion she resists. 

Faced with these conflicting demands – and with the deeper tension between research and teaching that was perhaps present in Humboldt’s original vision – universities all too often retreat from the world and clad their towers with ever more protective sheets of ivory.  Professor Rothwell recalled one local councillor comparing the Manchester University of ten years ago with the Vatican – in terms, not of holiness, but of impenetrability.

Perhaps Brexit shouldn’t have been quite the shock that it was. “It was not welcome,” said Professor Rothwell, “and not expected.”  Michael Gove’s notorious remark about experts perhaps spoke for a constituency who might regard the words “What are universities for?” less as a question and more as a statement: a constituency historically, and systematically, excluded by our education system. Universities, said Professor Rothwell, have failed to persuade the people of the value of European membership; and, she added, “we have not convinced the public, at least in the United Kingdom, of the value of universities to our society.”

How to move on?  “I think,” she said, “we now need to consider how universities contribute to the outcome of Brexit.  Funding is the least of the issues.  Social mobility and collaboration are the two key issues.”

About collaboration she spoke at length.  She described international collaboration as a way of sharing resources and transcending traditional hostilities between nations.  And she returned, again and again, to collaboration with industry and business.  “How much,” she asked, “should we value fundamental research versus economic growth and societal benefit?”  Universities can do research that companies wouldn’t dream of funding; and they can seek answers to “interdisciplinary questions that don’t fit the standard disciplines through which we teach our students.”  She quoted Professor Sir André Geim: “although our research could be called blue skies research,” he said, “every moment of every day I think about impact.” 

She tried in another way to square the circle – the pursuit of knowledge as an unsolved problem as against the application of knowledge in ways practical and profitable – by celebrating the 70,000 student entrepreneurs in the UK.  Although they contribute over £1bn to the economy, most of them – research suggests – don’t do it for the money.  Maybe universities can help develop the autotelic quality of innovation – the thrill of pursuing a new idea for its own sake – and contribute to the ensuing economic benefits that innovation brings.

Professor Rothwell sought to justify universities as “the engines of progress, the organisations that will solve the world’s biggest problems.”  She quoted Lord Dearing: “Just as castles provided the source of strength for medieval towns, and factories provided prosperity in the industrial age, universities are the source of strength in the knowledge-based economy of the twenty-first century.” 

And yet, and yet…  There’s a real danger, amid all these industrial metaphors, all this talk of intellectual property and international partnerships, that the idea of an education is lost.  Is not the real public good of any university embodied in the citizens it creates? 

Professor Rothwell addressed this question by turning to her second key issue: social mobility.  What is the value, she asked, of a degree?  The graduate premium, she suggested, must be only one measure of a university’s success, and not necessarily the most important.  We must value the “transformative experience” of a university education at least as much as its potential earning power.  She spoke of the need to identify students with real potential, wherever they might be.  She also touched on universities’ relationship with schools.  Quoting the adage that ‘schoolchildren are taught; university students study’, she suggested that “we haven’t managed the transition from schools, which are increasingly teaching students, to universities where we’re expecting students to learn.”

Universities, Professor Rothwell concluded, need to commit to engaging with society “but remain rigorously defensive of their core missions and values”.  Those words ‘but’ and ‘defensive’ were worrying – as if universities remain powerless to shift the terms of the argument.  She clearly believes that universities stand for what Ana Mari Cauce recently called “the sheer adventure of ideas”; and she ended by quoting A N Whitehead, in an address he gave in 1927: “the task of a university is to weld together imagination and experience” – words that could equally describe the mission of the British Science Association, of which she is the incoming President.

Professor Rothwell’s address was a brave stand for the pursuit of learning in the face of post-truth politics and sectarian philistinism.  But if universities are to diversify, to adapt and flex to the demands of a new century, what sits at their core?  For this writer, at least, it must surely be the vision of a liberal education, creating citizens who can make decisions about their future rationally, collaboratively and – yes – imaginatively.  If universities are not in the business of dispelling prejudice and magical thinking, what indeed are they for?


Alan Barker is a writer and training consultant. He is Managing Director of Kairos Training Limited.