Why should universities do political engagement?

Our representative bodies are rather good at demonstrating to government the value of what universities do and the tens of billions of pounds we collectively put into the UK economy each year. So why should individual universities do their own political engagement?

I believe this question speaks both to our institutional success and, crucially, to our role as civic institutions.

Fundamentally we need influential people – MPs, local councillors, community leaders and industry partners – to understand what we are about and to champion us in the spaces in which they have influence, whether it is in Westminster or in local civic life.

Some of that is simply about raising our profile as a university in our region – we are a local recruiter and it helps us if influential people have an insight into our work and can understand what we have to offer, whether it is that we are a top ten university for improving the student experience or that we saw the second highest proportional increase in funding in the country in the wake of REF 2014. 

It is equally important that those individuals are equipped to make arguments on our behalf. We need our local MPs and councillors to have an understanding of why it matters if immigration policy restricts our ability to recruit international students and that it has a direct impact not just on our health as a university but on the economic health of the region as a whole.

But in a more fundamental sense, this engagement activity speaks to the role of universities in their local communities and regions.

The University of Bedfordshire is woven into the fabric of Bedfordshire life through the courses that we offer especially health subjects, teacher training, and social care, through the research that we do that addresses social issues that our public services are working to get to grips with, through our relationships with industry where we provide innovation support and CPD and through our programme of sport, arts, culture and student volunteering.

Political engagement need not be simply about important people asking each other for things. It can be about fostering a collective understanding of the bigger goal for the region and how we can each contribute to making that a reality.

For example, next week I will be chairing a round table organised by the East of England Local Government Association discussing how we can best make use of digital technology to address pressing social issues. I will share some insight from our own research group into dementia, and the particular challenges of implementation of digital interventions that support home-based care.

In this sense, political engagement is like all forms of engagement, in that it is about a shared goal or project that is bigger than any one entity. It is about building partnerships and fostering interdependencies, not only protecting your own interests. And to do it you need to have a wide and generous understanding of the research landscape and the policy landscape, not a narrow focus on any one area of policy or academia.

There is a second, often-overlooked dimension of political engagement that has to do with ensuring your staff and students are in a position to understand the external environment and enabled to connect to it and influence it themselves, as citizens.

My own communications to staff are heavily influenced by the external environment – it is important to me that we are an outward-facing university that is interested in the world outside our doors.

My public policy lecture series and my annual lecture expose students and staff to political analysis and insight and give them access to the experience of a world that for many of them can feel very far away.

Our students are registered to vote through our academic registration process, removing the need for us to chase them throughout the year.

We have a regular policy briefing that goes to my executive team and other interested parties, and we also have a monthly meeting of all of my senior staff at head of department level and above where I give an insight into the policy landscape and we take the time to discuss our response.

A number of our researchers are closely linked to policymakers – particularly in health, but also very prominently in child sexual exploitation and English language testing. Not simply because we know it is important for the next REF, but because I know from my own experience in government that good policy comes, not just from good evidence, but from direct engagement and insight from the people who produce the evidence.  

A really important dimension of this is our partnership with our students’ union, whose work I am determined to support to ensure we hear from our students and understand their experience to the best of our ability – not only so that we can improve as a university but so they can develop their own political engagement practice.

For example, our SU sits on our remuneration committee, and the SU President is a full member of my executive group. Students are involved in staff recruitment where the role is more than 50% student facing.

The role of professional policy and public affairs staff who support this work is neither solely external nor solely internal, but to act as a bridge between the two, building relationships and forging connections, translating between the world of academia and the world of policy and politics and ideally, making both work better in the process.

This blog is a version of a speech given to the UUK/CASE political affairs conference on 19 November 2015

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