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National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement – a strategic imperative: A manifesto for public engagement within higher education

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The latest case study comes from Paul Manners at the NCCPE and encompasses all three of the Charter principles


‘For many staff and students working in UK universities the new Charter affirms something we’ve been working hard to achieve for many years.  We increasingly understand engagement with the public as far more than a gesture or charitable impulse.  We know it improves the quality and impact of our research, and value the mutual benefits it brings, to us and to the many different communities we engage with.  One concrete example of how the HE sector is changing is our ‘Engaged University’ manifesto, which invites universities to make a public, strategic commitment to the principles that animate the Charter’.


The UK Charter for Science and Society outlines an ambitious vision: a society in which science and research are deeply embedded in its culture, imagination and practices.  The Charter also recognises that we are some way from achieving this goal, and that much still needs to change.  In this case study we share how – over the last 6 years – the university sector has been embedding the principles and values outlined in the Charter and undergoing a significant transformation.

In 2008, when the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement [1] was set up, there was widespread recognition that whilst researchers were making considerable efforts to engage with the public, the professional culture of universities and research institutes was not supportive of this work, and was putting obstacles in the way.   Challenges included: the lack of strategic commitment to engagement, which was seen as a ‘nice to do’ but peripheral activity; engaged practice was not recognised or valued in promotions and recruitment; and little professional support was available to assess the quality and impact of the activities that were underway [2].  Six ‘Beacons for public engagement’ were funded alongside the NCCPE to pilot how these cultural and structural barriers could be addressed [3].  What we learned chimes with the framework offered in the Charter.

There are several factors that are important to address if researchers are to embrace a more committed and professional openness to engagement. These include: the need for strategic leadership, which recognises how engagement animates the core purposes of the institution; support needs to be put in place to help researchers develop and share the skills needed to engage with others well, and to reward and recognise this activity appropriately; and it is critical people are supported to reflect on and evaluate the impact of their work.  These challenges reflect the priorities embodied in the Charter, and to address them we took a number of steps.

One was to invest in capacity building across the sector, supporting training and development and skills sharing.  We argued the case for public engagement to be embedded in the professional development framework for all researchers (the ‘Researcher Development Framework’ [4]).  Our website hosts practical resources and guides and many case studies of effective engagement in action [5].   Another step was to encourage strategic partnerships between universities and other sectors with expertise in public engagement, whether with museums and science centres, with charities and grass roots organisations, or with the media.

A great diversity of events, programmes and partnerships are now flourishing across the sector, for instance, evidenced in the recent partnership between the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the BBC to encourage more engagement between university researchers and community heritage organisations [6].  A third important area of work has been to try to distil the hard won lessons from the Beacons projects about how to trigger and sustain deep and lasting culture change within universities: which some have likened the task to changing the course of an oil tanker.

We have developed a ‘culture change’ framework and set of self-assessment tools that are being used extensively across the sector which we will share in a separate case study [7].  The EDGE tool helps institutions to explore how ‘engagement-friendly’ their institution is, and to consider where and how they might improve their work.  We have sought to create an evidence base about why engagement matters to higher education, and the different ways mutually beneficial partnerships can transform the university and society. This has been an important tool for engagement champions working within HE to make a case for engagement being better supported within their own institution [8].

Alongside these developments, we have worked alongside the funders, to explore how alignment of different interventions might lead to the kinds of change they would like to see. Over the project lifetime we have been encouraged to see a renewed emphasis on public engagement from research funders, with the launch of the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research [9], and the inclusion of public engagement as a potential route to impact in the new Research Excellence Framework and within RCUK’s Pathways to Impact [10].

To consolidate these different trends and to provide a focal point for the sector the NCCPE has also developed and launched an ‘Engaged University Manifesto’, which invites university leaders to pledge their strategic commitment to engagement [11].  Over 60 universities have now made such a commitment, pledging to act on a set of strategic principles that mirror those outlined in the Charter.  The manifesto is a commitment to change – and to embed engagement across the institution. The NCCPE offer consultancy and support to manifesto signatories, and encourages them to draw on the various resources that we have created, and participate in our events. Learning from manifesto signatories informs our work, and ensures that the services we provide are pertinent to current changes within higher education.

We invited the vice chancellors to share their motivations for signing the manifesto on our website – and the responses make fascinating reading [12].   We’ve chosen three different perspectives to share, starting with the views of Steve West, vice chancellor at the University of the West of England, which hosts the NCCPE in partnership with the University of Bristol:

“Public engagement is embedded in each of UWE’s top strategic priorities. It is core to our mission and ethos. As a partnership university we understand the mutual benefits - public engagement enriches our academic activities and through public engagement we have a huge impact on economic, cultural and social development. We will continue to take great pride in our civic leadership responsibilities, working with our partners to produce opportunities, choices and solutions for today, and for tomorrow’s world”.  Professor Steve West, Vice-chancellor, University of the West of England

"Public engagement is an essential way for today's universities to connect with society and earn their 'licence to operate', so I am delighted to make this formal commitment to it at Imperial. Many of our researchers, staff and students already work with public audiences, demonstrating great skill, creativity and passion. I look forward to Imperial building on their efforts and providing stronger support for them, and experimenting with new ways of engaging with a diverse range of audiences." Sir Keith O'Nions, Rector of Imperial College London

“In all areas of our work, we recognise the responsibility Higher Education Institutions have to improve their communities and contribute to society. Loughborough also recognises the vital role the public can play in inspiring and informing research undertaken at the university. We believe that engaging partners throughout the research process is key to our success. By signing this manifesto, the researchers, staff and students here recognise the importance of making their research accessible and relevant, and commit to strengthening and expanding the agenda of public engagement at Loughborough University.” Professor Robert J. Allison, Vice- Chancellor and President of Loughborough University

“Signing the NCCPE manifesto is a natural extension of our motto and guiding principle “for the common weal”– meaning the common good – as we continue to champion social mobility, put our innovative ideas into action and share our professional expertise and knowledge wherever it is needed”, (Professor Pamela Gillies, Vice-Chancellor (Glasgow Caledonian University) explaining why they have signed the NCCPE Manifesto for Public Engagement

What these perspectives reveal is how universities increasingly understand engagement with the public as far more than a gesture or a charitable impulse.  They recognise how it benefits the university and the quality and impact of their research, and emphasise its mutual benefit.   The resulting strategic focus is fuelling a new spirit of openness and transparency in the university sector and a hunger to build stronger collaboration both with the public and with the host of intermediary organisations that work with the public.  Finding ways to build on this momentum, to share it with others, and to align it with the energy and expertise of the other sectors and supporters of the Charter is a tremendous opportunity which we look forward to supporting.


[1] The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement is funded by Research Councils UK, the UK Higher Education Funding Councils and the Wellcome Trust.  It is hosted by the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England.

[2] The Royal Society publication ‘Survey of factors affecting science communication by scientists and engineers’ provided evidence of the various cultural barriers to public engagement. (Royal Society, 2006)

[3] Find out more about the Beacons here:

[4] Researcher Development Framework:

[5] Case studies of effective engagement in action:

[6] Engagement between university researchers and community heritage organisations:

[7] Culture change framework and set of self-assessment tools:

[8] Engagement champions working within HE:

[9] Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research:

[10] More on Pathways to Impact:

More on The Research Excellence Framework:

[11] Engaged University Manifesto:

[12] Vice Chancellors motivations for signing the manifesto:


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