Public engagement - a Bristol tradition
Public engagement has been a feature of life at the University of Bristol for years. Many academic departments across the disciplines have amassed extensive experience of engagement with schoolchildren, adult learners and the general public, both directly and via the media. Bristol students also have a distinguished track record of engagement with local communities.
However, in the 1990s and early 2000s, a feeling persisted that while public engagement may be a pleasant enough activity, it was regarded as a distraction from the serious business of teaching and research. We believe that view has completely changed; now public engagement is part of the fabric of our institution and well respected in academic life.
Embedding public engagement
Several steps have been taken to bring about this change, which are detailed below. Engagement is now included in the University's Vision and Strategy and fundamental to what it means to belong to the University of Bristol. The way that public engagement has developed is both about our University and in tune with developments in the wider world.
The national context
The national context for public engagement is very different from 20 years ago. There is an increasing call for universities to be more open and accountable, as well as increasing public interest in how policy makers use research, and in the research itself. Research funders are beginning to ask about the effects of research on the wider world and through public engagement, some of these effects can be realised. An example of the shift in funders’ attitudes can be seen in 2008, when the funding councils, Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust allocated £9M to create ‘beacons’ of public engagement. This is the largest ever funding provided for public engagement in higher education. The University of Bristol, in partnership with the University of the West of England, secured part of this funding to create the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, which coordinates the beacons, sharing best practice within and beyond the higher education community.
How we got here
- Public engagement is driven by senior leadership. We have a group embedded in University governance structures responsible for developing public engagement strategy. This Engaged University Steering Group (EUSG) is chaired by a Pro Vice-Chancellor and joins colleagues with professional interests in the area with senior representatives from faculties. EUSG published its first vision for an engaged university in 2004, which was updated in 2009.
- Building public engagement into the institutional mind-set. The University's Vision and Strategy (2009 –2016) presents an institution that is 'engaged with society’s interests, concerns, priorities and aspirations' and includes a chapter on public engagement. The subject is also highlighted through presentations and discussions at meetings of the governing body and other key committees.
- Developing our public engagement strategy with external partners, and sharing ideas through regular public engagement fora which connect people from within and outside the University to develop fresh thinking.
- Using effective academic champions, such as Kathy Sykes, Professor of Sciences and Society, who bring public engagement to life through their work. Kathy was appointed to the University’s chair in public engagement in 2000.
- Having a network of public engagement representatives in departments and an annual public engagement conference (established in 2009).
- Having a small, highly professional central team working on public engagement, focused particularly on giving practical support to academic departments. The Centre for Public Engagement was set up in 2008.
- Ensuring public engagement is properly described in promotions criteria and that departments report about it during departmental reviews. Promotions criteria were changed in 2009 and the departmental review guidelines updated in 2010.
We try to share our experiences clearly, telling stories that inspire and do justice to the wide variety of activities taking place across faculties. We ensure that our centrally-organised public engagement projects are relevant to the priorities and interests of both the University and external partners or communities.
Public engagement involves two-way interactions; listening and learning together. Through dialogue, the ivory tower image of universities is fading fast, and barriers between universities and their environments start to break down. It's exciting to be part of that change and to feel that the University of Bristol is among those at the forefront. We are aware though, that there is much to do, and that issues still exist around time and resources for public engagement, including suitable opportunities for training and development.
If you have any comments about engagement at the University of Bristol, please get in touch with Centre Head, Dr Maggie Leggett.Email Maggie Leggett