Democratising knowledge and digital engagement: is engagement coming of age?

December 2012 saw the customary end of year engagement jamboree in the form of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement’s (NCCPE) annual conference ENGAGE. 

ENGAGE is usually a packed, lively and uplifting event and this year’s conference proved no exception, despite the decidedly non-uplifting nature of the sector’s struggles in ‘Responding to Change’ (the conference theme) in their markets, in accounting to the public and in managing the pressures of financial austerity.

The increasing pressure of public accountability for publicly-funded higher education institutions is widely observed. ENGAGE, which showcased the work of hundreds of organisations and individuals striving to demonstrate and improve the public value and standing of HE, helped to relieve some of this pressure.

There were over 200 delegates at the Bristol Hotel representing a diverse range of people from the higher education sector and beyond involved either in public engagement specifically or external engagement, more broadly. These included funders, sector stakeholders, membership and professional bodies, institutional engagement staff both from within disciplines and from broader engagement functions, community groups, voluntary organisations and international engagement specialists.

Such diversity among participants made for interesting and wide ranging sessions, comment and debate, but nevertheless some key themes and areas of consensus emerged.

Quality assurance

One such overarching theme was: how to ensure quality in engagement activities, now that they are becoming more mainstream? (Though we shall return to the question of how mainstream engagement is later).

Jisc’s Simon Whittemore delivered a joint workshop session, ‘Breaking down the Barriers’ with Dr Lucy Leiper and Heather Doran, both of Aberdeen University, on the integration of public engagement – and engagement in general – in standards and frameworks such as the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF). Here, public engagement is present but confined to a relatively small quadrant, though it could be argued that it fits in many ways across the whole Framework; indeed Lucy and Heather encouraged the delegates to look at the Framework through a PE lens. Delegates expressed some barriers to usage of the RDF, but agreed that this was a step forward in embedding PE into research practice.

Simon presented the Professional Development Diagnostic Tool for BCE, developed by Jisc and AURIL, in partnership with over 25 national bodies and with the input of hundreds of engagement practitioners. This was received with much interest, and had the effect of focussing the debate on the twin pillars on which quality engagement depends: skills and infrastructure.

Professional Development Resource for BCE

There was a concluding consensus in the session that embedding quality-assured engagement remains a challenge because engagement exposes structural issues in institutions.

In the later plenary debate, Nevin Brown, Senior Fellow at the International Center for Intercultural Exchange in Siena, made the very good point that universities needed to pay more attention to understanding their own culture to better understand how it can contribute effective engagement in the wider community.

Is engagement now ‘mainstream’?

Stephen West, Vice-Chancellor of UWE, provided the finale to the first day at the evening NCCPE launch event, the Future of the Engaged University. He had just come from a joint meeting with Eric Thomas, VC of University of Bristol at the Local Enterprise Partnership – evidence of the commitment UWE and Univ Bristol both have to the university playing a key and active role in civic leadership. This public responsibility, Steve West emphasised, ensures that engagement is no longer an optional extra for any university. UWE and Bristol, had come a long way since they jointly and successfully bidded to host the NCCPE in 2008. Partnerships between universities are also essential in furthering this agenda and ensuring an effective, joined-up response to social and economic needs; this is amply illustrated by the increasing number of regional research and knowledge exchange partnerships recently forming, the latest being GW4, similar in its purpose to N8.

Paul Clark’s (UUK, Director of Policy) presentation described some scenario planning UUK had undertaken with other stakeholders exploring the resilience and success of universities in the changing societal, economic and environmental context. Two key issues emerged from this work, related to quality and perception:

  • ensuring public confidence in what universities do;
  • what does society need from universities – do universities know?

The final word on whether quality engagement is embedded or not, came from April MacMahon, VC of Aberystwyth University towards the end of the conference, who reiterated the message that engagement is now the norm and has been mainstreamed. She commended the practitioners in the audience for having driven forward this ‘movement for change’. However, despite some shining lights of successful recognition and embeddedness, such as CUPP at University of Brighton, some members of the audience expressed their doubts, citing their frustration in struggling to secure recognition and coherent resourcing for engagement in their own universities.


Local engagement, communities and heritage

The Future of the Engaged University’ launch had included a sort of group speed-dating activity where small groups had the opportunity to listen to and comment on different engagement practitioners’ work and point of view, each in the space of 7 minutes. There were some strong themes to emerge from these discussions, voiced in the plenary. These included local engagement; overcoming class barriers in public engagement; digital engagement.

The importance of local engagement by universities – however global their profile is – was a point persuasively made by Erinma Ochu, co-founder and CEO of Carisma, on behalf of local communities. Others highlighted the key role of students in this local dynamic, and the massive economic and social impact of a large university on its locality, simply by virtue of its presence there, was widely acknowledged.

Another of the ‘speed-dating’ presenters, Anna Russell, from the National Trust, put the question to the group: how do we get the numerous rich and defining stories of our heritage out there for wider understanding? For example Tyntesfield has a vast range of physical and  intellectual historical assets which tell a compelling story. Digitisation was mentioned as a potential means of achieving this. Carole Souter, of the Heritage Lottery Fund stressed the bonding effect of heritage and how it needs to be presented in such a way as to overcome class barriers – and those in HE need to be aware of the trepidation many members of the public have in engaging with academics.

Digital engagement

Digital engagement was the subject of an interactive showcase presented by Kent McClymont (Associate Research Fellow, University of Exeter), Monae Verbake (Project manager University of Warwick) and chaired by Simon Whittemore. This session highlighted Embedding Research Impact projects funded by Jisc and facilitated by the NCCPE, which had brought together tripartite partnerships comprising research groups, business and community engagement ‘impact analysts’ and information management specialists.


In order for researchers to record, embed and monitor the impact of their knowledge, effective digital engagement is vital – and this requires a range of skills sets that the funded partnerships embodied. Kent described the Tracking Digital Impact tool developed in the Exeter-led partnership, a tool which enables researchers to plan and implement, in a methodical way, their digital engagement strategy. Monae highlighted the University of Warwick-led PERO project, which successfully developed a framework for evaluating the impacts of online engagement in research. Whilst there was some resistance in the workshop to obligatory use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, delegates agreed that there is a digital world out there and researchers who did not engage with and through could be left behind. In fact, delegates noted, these social media present strong opportunities for listening or market sampling, not merely for promotion and dissemination.

Democratising Knowledge on a Bicycle

Perhaps the most original contribution to the conference came from Jesús Granados (above) of GUNI in the closing plenary. He used the modest but pleasantly transporting metaphor of a bicycle and the spokes of its wheels to illustrate the key steps needed for engagement to sustain and enhance its direction of travel in universities, and hence increase its positive impact on society. Jesús’ points all revolved around the objective that we need to ‘democratise knowledge’ for a better society. His proposals rang many bells for a UK audience that had the public value of publicly-funded research, open access, REF and pathways to impact in the forefront of the mind. His ‘bicycle manifesto’ proposed the following journeys and destinations:

  • from the mono-culture of scientific knowledge to an ecology of knowledge;
  • from rational knowledge to integral human knowledge;
  • from partial knowledge to holistic and complex knowledge;
  • from isolated knowledge creation to social co-creation of knowledge;
  • from discipline-bound to cross-disciplinary and multiple perspectives;
  • from static use of knowledge to dynamic and creative use of knowledge.

Jesús’s  presentation quietly confronted a whole range of issues in this unconventional way, including some elephants in the room, as it were, and left the audience with much food for thought.


All in all an excellent conference, well compèred as ever partly by Paul Manners (Director, NCCPE) but mainly by Sophie Duncan, (above, Deputy Director NCCPE) whose delightfully engaging continuity presence helped sustain the energy and dynamism of the whole event. Compliments to the whole NCCPE team for organising a rich and high quality event.

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