In the UK, public and community engagement have become drivers for both policy and practice within higher education. Universities are increasingly playing a bigger role in connecting and engaging with localised place-based communities, ‘co-producing’ solutions and co-creating community-based partnerships. But what is the perception of universities from the outside? What can be done to improve public engagement? And how could this be beneficial to local communities?
A recent RSA Fellow-led event, hosted by RSA Central and Birmingham City University School of Social Sciences, explored the role and benefits of universities as publicly engaged institutions. Aftab Rahman, Director of Legacy WM, highlighted the public perception of universities as inaccessible spaces and the widespread gap between university values and equality policies and a lack of diverse representation of senior leadership. Practical and strategic routes for universities to address these issues include greater involvement at Board level between universities, community, and voluntary organisations, sharing of resources, two-way paid placements or secondments, and joint research projects.
With regards to public perception of the role of universities within local communities, Sophie Wilson and Andre Castro-Bilborough of Birmingham Voluntary Services Council (BVSC) reflected on research commissioned by Birmingham 2029 which highlighted the speed at which mutual aid groups at hyperlocal level formed to support local communities. Respondents were largely unable to identify how universities could have supported community responses or engagement within the context of the pandemic.
In summing up, Kusminder Chahal, Senior Research Fellow, Birmingham City University, identified 4 ‘Rs’ that universities should consider to improve public engagement:
- Representation – work consciously to change public perception and increase diversity of senior leadership.
- Responsive – actively promote opportunities and benefits for the local community.
- Resources – undertake visible, coordinated and well-resourced outreach to collaborate with local communities and voluntary organisations.
- Relationships – support initiatives that increase trust, collaboration and mutual benefit.
Active collaboration and shared objectives between universities and community organisations could establish long-term and mutually beneficial relationships which would not only benefit the institutions and organisations involved but also local people. A publicly engaged university will provide opportunities for personal and professional growth through shared resources and employment opportunities, as well as inspiring and supporting young people into higher education.