How universities create engagement through place: a shared language and a shared location.

By Kyle Smith, Communications Manager in the International Development Department

To understand the crucial role universities play in engagement – be it public, policy or civic engagement – we need to first explore how universities operate in partnership with their local communities. We may discover that these three types of engagement all happen in the same way. We may also discover that universities invest resources in simply marketing and broadcasting their core messages regarding recruitment, research and resource and not focusing on the underlying two way relationship which engagement requires.

How is civic engagement really different to public engagement, and what does policy engagement accomplish that public engagement doesn’t? As a Communications Manager, I focus equally on listening to audiences and planning how information should be disseminated to create real two way engagement. This must also happen at an organisational level.

We know universities connect people. They support the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge to other groups and institutions for public good and for the benefit of people in the local area, operating in a defined physical place and often aligned to the closest city where they are based. Although the local area is not always the focus of universities who often talk about global reach and reputation, the strength of the university brand is in its location, its buildings, its people, and the local surroundings.

In a time of political uncertainty in the UK HE sector, the emphasis on finding safe spaces for conversations, discussions, debates and places to explore new ideas becomes more important. Safe spaces for academics, publics and funders to discuss some of the most complex challenges facing our society is required. Information shared in these forums goes a long way to informing policy and public perception, and now is the time to protect and enhance these spaces and invest greater resources in connecting locally.

Translating research outputs and linking them to real world problems can be a complex task and has been the aim of public engagement professionals for many years. We need to find a method of research translation which builds trust in universities and communicates key information transparently to all of our stakeholder groups to meet their needs and speak to their local challenges. More importantly, as trust and legitimacy in organisations such as the BBC and NHS is fleeting, universities are set to come into the spotlight more frequently.

Before publics are in a position to interpret research findings, engagement professionals need to take a few steps back and explain how research works and the role universities play in shaping collective knowledge. Some of these tactics could include highlighting the methodology behind a study; emphasising the challenge which the research will seek to address; identifying sources of funding, and being transparent about decisions that are made, specifically ones which have the potential to impact on the local community.

Decision making transparency could be as simple as sharing local procurement choices and demonstrating a commitment to conducting activities as nearby as possible. If a university talks about sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint, then decides to procure stock internationally because of cost, this doesn’t demonstrate an institution operating in line with its values. Publics see through an institution with misaligned values and actions.

Building on the keynote by Julia Unwin (Civil Society Futures) at Engage Conference 2019, universities are encouraged not to be defined by their environment, but rather to proactively shape it. All actions, regardless whether large or small, will send a signal to groups of individuals (the local community, internal staff and external stakeholders) about the institutional intentions. Engagement of any kind (public, policy or civic) is about creating a long lasting two-way relationship and is much more than running events, sending emails and disseminating facts. The relationship with the community depends greatly on the ability of the university to act with transparency and clarity through the use of cooperative structures which highlight collaboration for common wealth.

A traditional view of civic engagement is focused on a private model of ownership and explores culture, economy and social factors. In contrast is the modern view of civic engagement where universities deepen local networks and focus on collaboration – no university should be an island and should speak to the issues experienced in society such as poverty, inequality, homelessness etc. By adopting a modern view of civic engagement, communities can be part of the process and are more likely to respond positively to further information.

Bringing together communities means seeing universities as more than just places of research. Whilst having an online presence is extremely important for an organisation with a global reach, it is not possible for a university to spray on a brand and hope that it sticks. Engagement works deeply through the layers of an institution and most of all needs to be authentic.

To create the best engagement, universities must support public engagement with human and financial resources, enabling local professionals translate complex research into real world benefits. An element of this process is framing outputs to audiences’ interests and making it relevant in the context of the challenge the research seeks to address. Policy makers, publics, funders, researchers, and academics all need different levels of information and will most likely all speak different languages. What they do have in common is seeing the benefit of research to the society in which we live. Our common language is global and includes the area where we live and the challenges we face collectively.

Let’s take public engagement further and reach out to address global issues, whilst taking local communities with us.

This blog was inspired by my attendance at the Engage Conference 2019, delivered by National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) in Bristol, which included presentations from Julia Unwin (Civil Society Futures), Mike Neary (Lincoln University), Jane Robinson (Newcastle University) and Rita McLead (Museums Consultant).