Recent research undertaken at the University of East Anglia (UEA) has highlighted enthusiasm amongst academics to participate in public engagement. However, the majority are not giving it priority because of an institutional culture that does not recognise, support or reward engagement with the public.
The study was undertaken as part of the independent evaluation of CUE East (Community University Engagement - East), the UEA-led Beacon for Public Engagement.1
The research was to provide a baseline of academic perceptions of public engagement, and the factors affecting involvement, against which the internal impact of the programme could be measured over time. It involved 55 in-depth interviews with a wide cross-section of academic staff at UEA.
Involvement in public engagement
One of the key findings revealed a lack of shared understanding of public engagement, so that academics were unclear about whether they had actually been involved in it or not. When asked if, by their own definition, they had been involved in a public engagement activity, the majority of interviewees indicated that they had. The most commonly cited activities involved one-way or linear communication, such as media work, public lectures and writing for a non-specialist audience. However, some had been involved in two-way dialogue such as participatory research and interactive events.
The research found that demand-led public engagement is stronger in some areas (for example health and environment) than others, such as maths.
The Importance of public engagement
The interviews highlighted that whilst most academics viewed public engagement as important, it was not as important as other academic activities such as research, teaching and administration. Consequently, public engagement was not given priority because respondents felt that they had to spend time on these other activities first.
There was no institution-wide mechanism for individuals to record their public engagement activities. Therefore, it was difficult to know the true extent of public engagement taking place, or to identify the impact on publics and communities.
Most respondents thought that there was a lack of strategic support for public engagement, although some pockets of support were available. Nor was public engagement universally rewarded in any formal way, such as through promotions criteria. It was thought that a clearer mandate for public engagement needed to be provided by embedding it in structural mechanisms within UEA.
Almost unanimously, time was seen as the greatest barrier to participation in public engagement. Other major barriers included: the lack of recognition for public engagement in career progression; the negative image amongst peers; the research-led culture and pressures to publish, along with more practical barriers such as the challenges of engaging people.
CUE East will be using the findings to refine their programme. This year, CUE East will be piloting an Engagement Tracker to be used by staff and students to record their engagement activities, and new promotions criteria on public and community engagement An Individual Awards Scheme for people who have made a significant contribution to public engagement was launched in 2008/09 and a case study of this is available on the CUE East website
Julie Worrall, CUE Project Director, commented: ‘We fully acknowledge the challenge ahead and welcome the opportunity to use our Beacon status to pilot and establish an institutionally coherent response which includes continuing professional development, new staff promotions criteria, an “Engagement Tracker” for staff and students to record their engagement profiles and a funding stream for the often-forgotten incidental expenses.’
As one of six Beacons established nationwide, CUE East is receiving a total of £1.2m over four years (2008 – 2012) to undertake a range of activities aimed at fostering a change of culture at UEA, helping its staff and students to engage with the public.
For more information on CUE East’s plans visit http://www.uea.ac.uk/community-university-engagement .
1 Funded by the UK Higher Education Funding Councils, Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Wellcome Trust, the Beacons for Public Engagement pilot project aims to improve public engagement by higher education institutions in the UK (http://www.publicengagement.ac.uk/ ).
The full report: “A qualitative baseline report on the perceptions of public engagement in University of East Anglia academic staff” (McDaid, 2008) can be accessed via
www.theresearchcentre.co.uk  or