Our lived experiences prior to working in the university sector could not have been more different. One of us was a successful dancer and executive at the Royal Opera House, the other a policy wonk. We both joined King’s to set up functions that were focused on external sectors – culture and policy – and aimed to increase the porosity of the institution.
Despite our diverse backgrounds, in developing these agendas we have relied on a similar set of tools that are rooted in the ideas of co-production, community organising and coalition building. At the time, we did not use that language, but unwittingly borrowed from and drew on their intellectual underpinnings.
We were also united in our dislike for the term “public engagement” as it disregards, at least semantically, what we were trying to achieve. We have observed in our present and previous roles that, in its form as a noun, it too easily becomes a responsibility that can be passed to others and something that can be considered, at some point, concluded or “done”. We see engaging with the world beyond the university as a holistic, active and ongoing process – a cycle of iteration and reiteration improved and enhanced by interaction with broader and diverse communities.
We are well aware that we are not alone in these concerns – and that they are shared even by those who have “public engagement” in their job titles.
A further dislike is the understanding of public engagement as an activity that largely relates to research and does not include other core elements of university business, from education and procurement to student and staff wellbeing. Perhaps our overarching concern is that the terminology currently serves as a portmanteau for both transactional approaches (which are the focus of our concern) and more sophisticated practice (which is our aspiration).
In this essay we try to unpick this issue by developing the ideas that language matters whilst proposing a new way of framing universities’ responsibilities – and abilities – to the communities that they serve.
The etymology of “public engagement”
The word “engagement” comes from the French “engager”, meaning “to pledge”. This pledge may be to a potential spouse, or to something more abstract, such as a conversation (“I engaged Jane in talking about …”). In everyday usage this implies a transaction between two people, leading to some form of outcome. And this is our key concern – that at its heart, the phrase “public engagement” is transactional. Undoubtedly it’s an improvement on the dated and patriarchal phrase of “public understanding (of science)” – but only just. We believe we need to move towards an approach that is rooted in the language of communities, with social interactions within and between those communities at its heart.
The second concern is with the word “public”. Although widely used, it again implies an “us and them” relationship, that there is an “other” and an “outsider” It also presumes an homogeneous identity, ignoring the inevitable diversity of people associated with, connected to, living alongside or aware of our universities. These relationships in themselves are fluid, meaning that individuals move between different “publics” in different circumstances and at different times of their lives.
An alternative framing may be through the lens of social capital, which captures these fluid networks of relationships between people residing – physically and virtually – in communities. The social capital imbued in these networks varies, as does their interactions and influences with universities. In our ideal world, universities are equal and active members of such networks, contributing to – and enhanced by – the overall social capital of communities of which they are a part. Where that parity does not happen, the networks will have different degrees of influence, meaning that universities will have asymmetric relationships (often unconsciously biased towards or against certain communities).
If we don’t like public engagement, what are the alternatives?
We should stress we don’t (yet) have the answer to this, but our concern is to find a term that descibes the outcomes of engaging – that active verb, not the noun – that we are trying to achieve together: that is one where the university is part of its community, acting with mutuality in a socially responsible way.
At King’s, “Service” is the term we adopted in our Strategic Vision 2029 to describe our commitment to society beyond the traditional roles of education and research. We spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on what our vision should be to take us to our two hundredth anniversary in 2029. Through a consultative process, we consistently heard from our students, staff and alumni their belief that our informal motto “in the service of society” reflected our longstanding ethos as a university. Service is in our DNA, but in 2017 we took the bold step to position it alongside education and research as a third pillar of our core academic mission, playing out in the context of London and internationally.
The context for service activities in London and internationally is critical to our thinking. For example, we have deliberately positioned King’s as “a civic university at the heart of London”, reimagining the red-brick interpretation more usually associated with the term. Likewise, our international activity goes beyond partnership development to creating at King’s a core cultural competency drawn from our international experiences.
We should stress that while this framing is not widely used, King’s is not unique in this approach. Other universities, such as Manchester, have used the language of “social responsibility” – already common currency in the corporate sector – to capture this mission and, like King’s, have backed that up with senior (executive level) appointments. The recent UPP Civic University Commission report picked up on this, noting that:
A true civic university has a clear strategy, rooted in analysis, which explains what, why and how its activity adds up to a civic role. Whether it does that through leveraging international activity or focusing locally; primarily as a research and teaching institution or through a wider anchor role; and alone or in an ecosystem is a local question. But it should be clear why and how universities have answered that question, and how they have organised themselves to achieve their civic aims.
Internationally, it is probably the US universities that have led on this agenda, with the University of Pennsylvania providing a classic case study. As President Amy Gutman notes in the Penn Compact: “A university is, first and foremost, a social undertaking to create a social good.” The Penn Compact – developed as part of Gutman’s inaugural address in 2004 – identifies inclusion, innovation and impact as the key mission of the university, supported, as its website illustrates, with an impressive range of impact activities that clearly stretch beyond the narrow confines of traditional public engagement.
From corporate social responsibility to creating shared value
This shift from public engagement to service is mirrored in the corporate sector by the evolution of corporate social responsibility (CSR) to creating shared value (CSV). Michael Porter and Mark Kramer wrote a seminal essay on the topic in 2011 in the Harvard Business Review: “Creating shared value, how to reinvent capitalism and unleash a wave of innovation and growth”. Core to their argument was the proposition that businesses were in danger of losing their licence to operate (their “social contract”, in the language of universities) and that the purpose of corporations had to include social as well as economic good. As they note, this is different from CSR which, they suggest, is “a reaction to external pressure [which] have largely emerged to improve firms’ reputations and are treated as a necessary expense.” Shared value, as they define it, is a set of “policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates.”
A corporate example comes from BHP Billiton’s approach to malaria prevention in Mozambique. In Mozal, Mozambique the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton, runs an anti-malaria programme that is one of the world’s most successful. Adult malaria infection rates have fallen from approximately 92 per cent to 5.6 per cent through education, spraying and bed net programs. The fall in malaria and consequent improvement in community health has seen a reduction in absenteeism in the work force from 22 per cent to 2 per cent. The corresponding increase in productivity is measured as higher than the cost of the programme. In other words, the anti-malaria programme is profitable. The community and company both gain measurable benefit. These efforts are now being expanded by the establishment of public-private partnership malaria investment bonds, seeking to deliver shared value through a pay-per-performance mechanism.
Returning to the idea of service, a university-equivalent example of shared value could be Parent Power, a programme to widen participation run in partnership by King’s College London and Citizen’s UK. Parent Power is a group of parents from South London with no familial experience of tertiary education who are learning about the system and how to give their kids the best chance of going to university. By taking power into their own hands and drawing on partners to organise their own campaigns, they are breaking down barriers to access universities. So far, the parents have won fully funded open days to universities and 90 per cent bursaries in private summer schools. The parents are also running campaigns on other barriers to accessing university including the cost and quality of private tuition and the huge application fees for British citizenship.
In the example on malaria prevention and in that of Parent Power, both institutions – BHP Billion and King’s College London – have generated economic value: the mine’s productivity has gone up and some new students have come to King’s. But in so doing they have also created social value for local communities – improved health in Mozal and increased social mobility in south London. In other words, that value is shared: shared between the institution and the local community.
An alternative framing for the idea of shared value is to think of universities as social enterprises, where that shared value is delivering a social good – through education, through research but also through the way the universities operates and behaves via, for example, its procurement policies and supply lines.
In our view, the shift from CSR to shared value or social enterprise is analogous to that between public engagement and service. Once we accept that we are not acting solely in self-interest but are looking for mutually beneficial outcomes, we liberate the mission of universities to be over and above traditional public engagement activities. In this world view, mutual benefit occurs through a multitude of activities, from galleries, museum and public spaces, through to socially responsible procurement, sustainability, research impact and service-led learning.
A New Power paradigm for universities
This changing mission has consequential implications for how we run universities. It relies on a new set of approaches that are nicely captured in in a Wonkhe blog by the vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln, Mary Stuart. As Stuart notes:
Increasingly we see movements emerging which are not overseen by elites but work through what is being called new power drawing on widely disseminated information through social media. We cannot ignore, or worse, dismiss these changes. If we, in universities, do not address these developments we will lose our significance and value to society. This is not just an issue for senior people in universities, but it points to a need to engage the whole community of scholars in deep thinking about our futures.
New Power by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans examines how power and influence is changing with the emergence of movements such as #MeToo, Parent Power and Extinction Rebellion. They neatly summarise:
Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures…New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.
A university that is committed to a service agenda, where it is working for mutual benefit with its communities – within and external to the university – will have to shift its management and governance from one that values currency, to one that channels the current. For example, this could include accreditation to pay the Living Wage or insourcing cleaning and security contracts, as we have done at King’s College London. This is not an easy “ask” for institutions as traditional and rule-based as universities have often been but, in our opinion, it’s an inevitable consequence of adopting a service agenda as part of the core academic mission we are arguing for. How this actually plays out inside universities will be different in different institutions, with no cookie-cutter answer. In practice a new power university will be one that is authentic to its core values (whether written or unwritten), is respectful of its old power history but interprets that for today’s context.
A thought on measurement
We will need an answer to the question of how to measure, assess and even rank universities on their service contribution. In the UK, the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) illustrates the tendency to want to measure the unmeasurable as well as the unintended and negative consequence of doing it badly. As we noted in our KEF consultation response: “We consider the currently proposed KEF configuration to be too simplistic to appropriately capture the complexity of the sector and consequently risks not fulfilling its purpose.”
A better approach, in our view, are the THE Impact Rankings, where King’s was rated fifth globally. On the positive side, the approach was holistic and captured a range of activities – from diversity and inclusion, through to research on socially important issues and the environmental sustainability of the universities. On the downside, the broad mass of data that needed to be collated and, we suspect, its interpretation, may create challenges for the long-term viability of this ranking in the sector.
Together with the Universities of Melbourne and Chicago, we are engaged in an ongoing project to see whether there is an optimal middle ground between KEF and THE Impact Rankings: an approach that reduces the number of indicators to a handful but, in doing so, ensures we focus on the behavioural change we are trying to incentivise through measurement and captures the broader impact universities can have through all their service and engagement activities.
In all the examples cited above we see an alternative language – that of service, public service, social responsibility, impact – developing to avoid use of the clunky term, public engagement. It is also worth noting that this language is often embedded in the disinctive history of each institution – and perhaps that is key. In a search for a common nomenclature, we resort to the lowest common denominator of public engagement. But that is precisely what we should rally against as it does a disservice to the holistic, embedded and mutually beneficial approach that we are advocating.
It implies the addition of activities to connect the universities’ outputs with “the public” rather than the integrated and ongoing dialogues between a university and its multiple communities that generate mutual value. At King’s, we will use the language of service to describe this important third element of a university’s academic mission, acknowledging that other institutions will use different language that better reflects their context, their communities and their individual histories.