How far should universities go to avoid engaging with their local communities?


A senior member of a major British adult education provider told me last week that he was disappointed by the higher education sector, finding it aloof and unresponsive. This had not always been his experience, so he was wondering whether I thought the universities were now out of the adult learning field altogether. His view was that this was largely caused by research assessment regimes, which have rewarded academics who impress other academics, while discouraging any wider engagement in the community.

This is probably a reasonable indictment of the old Research Assessment Exercise. Or, more accurately, it is a fair description of how many academics and their managers chose to respond to the old RAE. Nor is this simply a British phenomenon. In many countries, academic research is measured either by the numbers of times that their work is cited by other academics, or by the number of papers that they publish in journals that are highly regarded by other academics.

This is even worse than the old RAE. It leads to entirely predictable games-playing, as academics are clever folk who will devise the most effective ways of achieving high citations, or getting into those highly-rated journals.  Governments appear to be satisfied with this, as they invariably either boast about the number of “our scientists” who perform well on this measure, or berate their nation’s scholars for failing to measure up. But whichever system was used, the result has been to turn academics inwards, encouraging them to speak above all to their own peers, and to ignore the wider community (with the obvious exception of those organisations who pay for and commission various commercially driven projects).

This seems to me entirely counter-productive. If we cannot explain our research to the wider community, and justify it to the public, then we cannot expect our research to command public support. Rather, we should expect much of the public to mistrust academics, viewing them either as self-indulgent and wildly out of touch, or as in the pay of large vested interests. Over time, this is bound to undermine the political consensus in favour of publicly funded academic research.

I am therefore moderately encouraged by a number of recent developments. The first is the inclusion of ‘impact’ in the new research assessment system. This requires academics to show that high quality research has in some way influenced the wider public, and has had benefits for them. This will explicitly include the measurement of impact on civil society and third sector organisations as well as on the public and private sectors. This is certainly not without its problems – not the least of which is that the sector has limited experience of assessing the impact of research on people who are not other academics. But it is a step in the right direction.

The second is the decision of several universities to appoint professors specialising in the public understanding of science. Marcus du Sautoy is probably the best known of these, thanks to his broadcasting collaboration with the comedian Dara O’Briain. Sheffield has gone a step further, appointing Angie Hobbs as professor in the public understanding of philosophy. Again, this seems to me to be a sensible decision by those universities that are far-sighted enough to recognise that an informed public opinion is in their long term interests as much as anybody’s.

The third is the growing willingness of academic researchers to engage with those who criticise and protest against their work. In the most recent case, scientists at Rothamsted Institute of Arable Crops Research offered to meet a direct action group of anti-GM protesters to discuss their concerns. The protesters in turn called for an open debate, which the two sides are now arranging. It is unlikely that this dialogue will resolve all the differences, which run deep, but it is a world away from the violent police-led responses of the past.

These are welcome developments, though it probably goes without saying that I’d like to see them become the norm rather than the exception. If universities are public institutions then why would they not expect all of their researchers to promote public understanding of their work? Perhaps it should be a requirement of all public research funding that the researchers should be willing to communicate their findings to the local community, and indeed listen to what the community thinks of it.



One thought on “How far should universities go to avoid engaging with their local communities?

  1. You raise several interesting points. I’m on the other side of the pond and adult or (Continuing Education / Professional Studies / Extension Courses as they’re usually dubbed here) haven’t disappeared. I think we’re actually seeing an increase in the outreach to adult non-matriculated or matriculated in non-traditional bachelors programs students. I’m in a major metropolitan area and I’ve been seeing an ever increasing number of non traditional professional certification programs, as well (something I plan on writing about soon). Even the cost of public higher education in the US is becoming untenable with the economy and new avenues are appearing like those I mentioned.

    As for the next point, the disseminating of what it is we actually do, I’m a huge proponent of this. How can we demand public (and tax payer) support if we don’t give them a reason to support us that they can identify? When I was pursuing my bachelors degree a very savvy science professor told us that it is indeed our duty to do this. He was very active in the local community government and would educate the public (in a digestible way) on current issues in science, what their impact was, what he and his department were up to and so forth.

    Though, I’m still trying how I will do this with French literature! Thanks for raising these questions.

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