Where have all the universities gone? The quest for civic engagement

For those of us working in higher education, the idea that universities make a huge contribution and are deeply embedded in civil society is a given.

As the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) started work on our response to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) consultation on a new Civil Society strategy, imagine our surprise when we discovered no mention of universities.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I often browse books about contemporary society in bookshops and turn to the index – and rarely find universities listed. Try it – it’s a salutary exercise.

This threw into relief the relative invisibility of universities’ engagement in areas other than the economy. In comparison to the civil society strategy, it is unthinkable that something like the industrial strategy would have omitted to reference universities.

So why is this the case, and what might be done about it?

Is it that politicians and civil servants simply aren’t aware of the extent of universities’ involvement in civil society? This seems to be part of the problem. As a result, the bulk of our response is an attempt to describe the many ways in which universities are engaging with civil society, in their research, teaching and wider commitment to civic engagement. We highlight the value this is generating, and the lessons we are learning about how to do this well.

But simply throwing a spotlight on this activity clearly isn’t enough.

A compelling narrative for civic engagement

We are still struggling to present as compelling a narrative or logic for universities’ engagement in civil society as we seem able to make for their contribution to the economy. For the economy, the argument seems to be very simple: “productivity requires innovation which requires new knowledge and highly skilled people = universities”. What kind of narrative should underpin how we make the case and frame a strategy for the sector’s engagement with civil society? And what language should we use to explain this simply and directly?

We need, presumably, to start with a much stronger articulation of what a “good” society needs, beyond a productive economy. We need to clarify the outcomes we are striving for – fairness, social justice, civility and tolerance, health and wellbeing, lifelong learning perhaps – and why we believe human and environmental flourishing matters. This goes beyond what is sometimes a rather mealy-mouthed framing of “grand challenges”. These are more than challenges – this is about taking a strong moral stance about the kind of world we want to help create, based on a deep understanding of the forces which shape our collective futures. Of course, this makes sound business sense too. A thriving civil society and a thriving economy should go hand in hand.

A robust rationale

And we need to go beyond rhetoric, and offer a robust rationale for how we can contribute. The industrial strategy is based on a set of assumptions about what the economy needs in order to flourish, how, why and where it is “stuck”, and it offers a clear framework to guide future activity and investment. We need a similarly direct and explicit rationale and “theory of change” to explain how, through research, teaching and engagement we can make our contribution to civil society in a purposeful, considered and professional way. This won’t be perfect of course – but we need a clear plan, not just warm words.

The NCCPE’s response to the civil society consultation doesn’t go this far. Its main intention is to say to government – look at the huge value that could be unlocked by making universities as central to your thinking about civil society as they are to your thinking about the economy. We highlight some of the distinctive ways universities can contribute, for instance through participatory research methods and through partnership working, and the slow but significant cultural change needed to hardwire these developments into our culture. And we make the point that thriving universities depend on a flourishing and vibrant civil society and vice versa – our futures are inextricably connected.

Where next?

What all this makes clear is that, in the months ahead, we need to significantly up our game. One avenue for this could be the Civic University Commission. Its evidence gathering is under way at the moment, and it will report later in the year.

Another opportunity is to help inform UK Research and Investment (UKRI)’s emerging strategy for public engagement. UKRI has just published its Strategic Prospectus, with a commitment to delivering a new strategy for public engagement by March 2019. The prospectus gives the impression of business roughly as usual for public engagement. There is a section dedicated to it (nested within “Creating Social and Cultural Impact”) where it commits to:

  • Promote, support and encourage researchers and innovators to engage with the public as they shape and conduct their work
  • Listen and respond to a diverse range of views and aspirations about what people want research and innovation to do for them
  • Sustain strong public dialogue to ensure people are engaged and involved with research and innovation, with the issues, the opportunities and the implications
  • Engage with research communities, businesses, civic society and policymakers to foster strong partnerships and collaborations and ensure our investment can deliver impact

These are all important aspirations and motivations. But we need to be clearer about why they matter and the difference they make.

If we want to tackle the apparent invisibility of universities, we need to seize this opportunity to frame a much more compelling strategic purpose for public and civic engagement. We need to create much greater public and political expectations of our work – and then work with civil society to deliver on these.

2 responses to “Where have all the universities gone? The quest for civic engagement

  1. A classic case of good public engagement – and high visibility – are the Open University’s outstanding TV and Radio programmes, broadcast on BBC.

  2. We feel the key starting point is to identify what makes a ‘good’ university, in terms of social good that is. We are working with our network of HEIs that are independently accredited as social enterprises to develop a framework for this

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