The power of public engagement – tertiary education as knowledge hubs

Tertiary Education Futures
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The future of tertiary education
The power of public engagement - tertiary education as knowledge hubs

Embracing public engagement as a meaningful dialogue for mutual benefit envisions a future where it becomes an integral part of tertiary education, enriching institutions, researchers, and society. In recent years, we have seen increased public scrutiny of scientific knowledge production, especially catalysed by the recent pandemic, and public engagement activities can be useful tools to build relationships and trust and help institutions deliver their civic missions.

Dr Mhairi Stewart, a renowned public engagement expert, sheds light on the evolving landscape of knowledge exchange, the ethical challenges of developing engagement programs, the skills required for effective public engagement, and the benefits of public engagement for researchers and society.


Professor of Tourism and Leisure Studies, University of the West of Scotland.
Head of Berlin School of Public Engagement, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.


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00:00 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: Hello, this is Professor Sandro Carnicelli, Professor of Tourism and Leisure Studies at the University of the West of Scotland and Young Academy of Scotland member. Today we continue our podcast series discussing the future of tertiary education and we focus on the role of public engagement, impact and ethical challenges. To explore this theme, I’m joined by Dr. Mhairi Stewart. Dr. Mhairi Stewart is joint Head of the Berlin School of Public Engagement at the Natural History Museum in Berlin.  Mhairi’s work focuses on international public engagement delivery, policy and strategic development, bringing the public, academia, industry and policymakers into productive dialogues for mutual benefits. She undertakes interdisciplinary research on the boundaries of current engagement theory and practice, evidencing the value of engagement to institutions and research individuals, as well as audiences. Mhairi is a founding member of the Scottish Public Engagement Network, she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a member of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland. Thank you for joining us in this tertiary education futures podcast today. How are you doing?

01:12 Dr Mhairi Stewart: Very well, thank you. How about yourself?

01:15 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: I am okay, thank you. So Mhairi, today, our conversation is an area that obviously you are a super expert, which is public engagement. And it is an area that really fascinates me as well in my work here at the University of the West of Scotland. But I want to know a little bit from you. Just let’s start with a reflection and think a little bit about how you’ve seen public engagement changing over your career? It’s something that is really, people are talking a lot about nowadays, but you’ve been working with that for a while now and how you’ve seen progressing so far?

01:56 Dr Mhairi Stewart: Yes, it has evolved quite a bit. When I started out, it really was researchers or students going to schools and talking about their work, without any training, without any backing necessarily from the institute, other than it’s a good thing to do. And as things evolved, that came with investments, but the investment came from outwith the universities and the higher education institutes. And that’s fine. I think the outward investment was very, very welcome. And it started to involve the role of the public engagement professional, somebody who facilitates researchers and institutions to undertake public engagement. And public engagement, what it is, evolved again to be, it’s not just about going to schools, it’s about engaging stakeholders, whether they be communities of place, communities of interest. It could be business and policymakers. And, of course, it could be the institution that does the engagements, not necessarily the individual. So those roles expanded and expanded and expanded, and the goals expanded. And I think that was great. What then happened… came these large investments. And I think we’re at a slight crisis point now, because these investments have been withdrawn. These incentives in some ways have been withdrawn. We used to have, in UKRI, the pathways to impact in research grants. That, it’s a little unfair to say it’s been withdrawn, because you’re supposed to write it throughout the grants now. But as an individual piece, it is no longer a driver. And that has left institutions, who let’s face it, do have an awful lot of priorities that they have to put into order, to deprioritize things that don’t get external investment. Now, I don’t think it’s just the institutions’ fault. And I don’t think it’s just the funders’ faults, because some institutions are still fantastic doing their engagements and supporting engagement of researchers and institutional members. I also think public engagement professionals like myself, I’ll be honest, have to take a little bit, shoulder a little bit the blame, because I don’t think we evidenced enough the value of what we do and the impact of what we do in a manner that higher education institutes value themselves. We’re very good at saying we need to talk to our audiences in a way that they’re used to, whether that be on Tik Tok, or whether that be through patient forums, whatever that looks like. But we’re not very good at thinking of the academy as an audience, and it is an audience for us, you know, if we’re making a business case, we have to do that. So coming to the end of this, how it’s evolved, I think investment has really been redirected. It’s not completely gone. It’s very community orientated now, rather than institutionally orientated. And I think that’s a good thing. But I also think it’s gone a little bit too far, because I don’t think there’s enough incentives now for researchers and institutions. So it has reverted almost to a tick box. But the field of public engagement has evolved. And it’s evolved both as a practice and as a research field. And we’ve got to the point now, where we really are looking at some fantastic research into engagement. And so I now feel, I think I can sum everything up in that public engagement used to be a tool for research. And I think it’s now become both the tool but also a field of research in itself. So much like, in the 70s, computer science was a tool for research, it is now a field for research. And I really think public engagement is evolving along those terms. And I hope it is.  

06:08 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: Interesting, and you’re seeing that. I’m originally from Brazil, and public engagement, and we can discuss if it’s public engagement, community engagement, is a mission for the universities. So basically, you know, what they talk about, you know, like the three main areas that we have here, like research, teaching and internationalization, for example, in Brazil has always been research, teaching and public engagement, community engagement. So basically, there was funding. That was part of the funding that the government would give to the university, that was specifically directed to community and public engagement, you know, which has always brought me to the to the idea that, you know, if you think about the evolution of higher education, and tertiary education, is always been seen as a place full of walls and I think, you know, public engagement, would allow those walls of privilege, if you want to talk about privilege, because people who will go to these institutions were seen as privileged and were privileged, could then actually engage with the communities around it. Do you see this changing? Do you see the field and you talk about public engagement becoming the field of research? But do you see things evolve? Do you see, for example, becoming a mission becoming… the government saying, look, we, you know, we fund universities with taxpayers’ money, you need to do more public engagement?

07:49 Dr Mhairi Stewart: That’s a really interesting question. We do have the Civic Universities Movement here in the UK, which itself is an evolution of previous activities on civic engagement. And there is… calls from policy, from governments, about the role of the university in our local and international communities. But there’s, I don’t feel there is enough pressure on the universities to do this. There’s less incentive for them to do it. I actually, interestingly, met a university principal from Brazil recently and talked to them about this. And I was so impressed that it is such a pillar in their mission, there, and in South Africa, as well. It is also a pillar in the mission, there’s actually a government white paper that insists that all science must include community engagement. So this is written into policy documents in these places. It’s not so much written into policy documents here. It might be in lower-level indicative documents, but not in mission documents. And I think the universities and further education institutes need to be incentivized, not just with money, I will be honest with you, I think this is one of the problems in the UK at the moment. We’ve been incentivised with money a lot and immediately that money gets taken away, there’s no incentive anymore. But also, even while we got funding, there was no accountability for the quality of engagement we did. And still isn’t, to be fair. So I think there needs to be stick as well as honey in order to really drive engagement. But yes, to answer your question fully, and shortly, tertiary education institutes do need to take this more seriously. And one of the reasons they need to embed it in mission is because it’s good for them. I don’t think they see the value of engagement. And let’s take away public engagement, let’s talk about engagement in the community in totality, whether that be research engagement, community engagement, whatever that looks like. It doesn’t just, it isn’t just there to create impact for mission, it’s there to create impact for the institution. And that could be in driving equality, diversity and inclusion. It could be in community relations, although we’ll maybe come on to why public engagement should not be public relations. And it might be in teaching, it might be in researcher development, it should certainly be in organisational development. So we need more reflection from our institutions, so that they can see the value to themselves.

10:51 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: I wonder if the drivers of these changes in the near future, would be two. One is the evidence that we had from the last years, and we need to see how much is the impact of COVID or not, of the decrease in the number of enrolment of students. That will push universities… should do more public engagement in order to attract more students in the future. And if the changes on the values of REF, where they’re talking about increasing the percentage of impact, would also drive that. So I want you to reflect on that. Do you think, for example, the focus on the impact agenda will be good for public engagement, for example?

11:44 Dr Mhairi Stewart: I’ll take those one at a time. I’ll start with the evidencing and the drive to increase enrolment. And I’ll come back to that point I made, that public engagement should not be for ethical reasons and should never be public relations. But you cannot deny that public engagement done well and community engagement done well is good for brand. So there is a sliding spectrum here. And we just have to be aware. It depends whether you’re doing your community engagement for a marketing purpose, that for me feels a bit, to use a technical term, icky, it feels a bit wrong, ethically questionable. On the other hand, if it’s done to mutual benefits, so to make people aware, or potential students aware of the value, the perceived value, not the value of what a education at that institution can give them and it’s more than just the academic, the academic future, but the skills and attributes they can learn through, for example, engaged teaching, which is a really interesting place that development is happening at the moment. If it’s done with that in mind, as well as the benefit to the institution, then that falls within the definition of public engagement, which is a dialogue for mutual benefit. I paraphrase greatly, but that’s basically what that sentence in the definition for the National Coordinating Centre says. So, yes, I think it has a role there. And, again, we need professionals running this so that it can be properly evidenced. And I feel we do need to make sure that that evidence is created from the start, and it hasn’t been in the past. And where it’s published is important as well. Let’s not forget that. There’s lots of great literature out there. Many of my colleagues and myself have published lots of great literature. But that’s not necessarily valued as much in institutional settings, in higher educational settings. I’ll come on to the REF, REF’s an interesting one. The REF, for me, has been a double-edged sword for public engagement. Yes, it has definitely driven up the institutional value of engagement as a pathway to impact. It has driven up the desire of researchers to undertake engagement and the motivations given by institutions, whether that be including engagement in workload planning, in promotion criteria. And that in itself is fantastic that that is happening now. The problem is though, the REF in the way it’s working, is promoting just the best-case studies. And so, all the investment from institution goes into those best-case studies. And well, it was my worry, but I’m actually seeing it come into fruition now. There’s no investment in building new case studies and new researcher development for their own best practice and engagement. And in that way, I think institutions are fairly shooting themselves in the foot, quite frankly, they really need to be investing in these grassroots pathways to impact, so that we have more case studies coming through. So the REF is good on one hand, because it’s promoting engagements and motivating institutions, but on the other hand, it needs to do more about motivating institutions to support early career engagement.

15:45 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: Interesting. And obviously, when talking about REF, we’re probably talking more about universities. But when we’re talking about public engagement and tertiary education, we’re talking about other institutions as well. So how do you see this approach to public engagement in different types of organizations and institutions? So obviously, we have St Andrews and Glasgow and you know, traditional universities, let’s say you have the post 92 universities, we have the colleges, we have other sectors you know, the army offering education as well. So how do you see public engagement and the approaches that these different organisations state?

16:22 Dr Mhairi Stewart: Yeah, absolutely. And of course, I work in a museum now, a research museum, and of course, we’re having engagement there as well, and engagement with research, engaging with communities, engagement with societal goals and the SDGs. Do they have different approaches? No, not really. It depends on the goals that that individual institution has. So actually, I’m saying yes and no. No, they don’t necessarily have different formats. But yes, each institution has their own goals, their own means that they want to promote, I think, actually UWS, University of the West of Scotland, is a lovely example. They wanted to make sure that their new campus had real engagement in the community, and they built a new building that has a glass frontage that is completely rolled away in the summertime, which in Paisley isn’t that often but it happens. And a table tennis table is rolled out. And that’s brought the community into that building, and they feel part of the campus, they feel part of the institution. It’s helped them to become an anchor institution in their community, not just because they’re doing good in the community, but because they’re actually embedded, they’re part of the community. So that’s a lovely way that they’ve done it in a physical sense. And I think Glasgow University hopes to see very much the same coming out of the Ark. And I hope they do, it sounds like a great investment there. But of course, it’s wider than that. Other universities have community funds that they have communities applying for, for development in various aspects. And that’s all working towards the community engagement. I think, if we were to make very broad strokes, I think further education does much more on the community engagement front. But I think that’s because it’s part of their founding mission, universities and research institutes maybe do focus more on the research engagements. And I think that, again, is partly because of their own focus and mission in the way they do things. Now, I don’t think there is particularly any particular way that they are different in the way they do things. Again, some do better, some don’t do so well. They need to do whatever they need to do to fulfil their mission.

19:03 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: Now, a lot of this conversation is about the strategic level of the university and how they see their engagement or their public engagement communities and so on. Now, if you take them out to the strategic level and go into more the operational level of things, the people who will do those are academics, are, you know, members of the administrative staff as well. How do we enable them for public engagement?How can we actually help them to develop the skills needed? What are those skills needed for public engagement? So how do we go from that strategic level? Okay, that’s our mission. That’s what we need to see in terms of these. And that’s the benefits of doing public engagement. How do we do them of operationalising that and enabling staff to do it?

19:43 Dr Mhairi Stewart: Absolutely. I think that’s a really great question. A researcher’s job is to do research, you know, it’s not necessarily it’s their first job to do engagement. I hope that researchers I work with realize the value to their research of doing engagement and maybe that’s where I’d start. You need a professional, public engagement professional, to be able to support, to widen perspectives. You know, it’s not all about visiting schools, you can do many, many other things, in fact, to do public engagement, you don’t need to meet the public. And the skills that need to be in place, it’s not just communication skills, okay? There’s a lot of project planning, budget management, all sorts of activities that really need to be, or skills that need to be practiced when doing public engagement. I would also say one thing that researchers need is somebody who can help them do the administration, because this is the part of engagement that is really difficult if you’re not used to working with third party stakeholders. This is, you have to think about things like relationship management, you have to find those stakeholders in the first place, you have to ensure that everyone has or feels empowered and is empowered to have a voice, you have to be able to translate jargon, not just from the academic to the societal, but there’s jargon in society that academics might not get, or they might be using the same word for two different things, that is incredibly common. And so this is where that side of things can be really helped along. See also they need just the time to do it and the encouragement, simply, if we go down to the absolute operational, simply an acknowledgement from a Head of School for the work they’ve done, goes so far, we don’t say thank you enough.

21:46 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: That’s a really interesting, fascinating, fascinating point. And I think like the awareness and valuing in the first place, right, to think beyond as an organisation, if you don’t find it, then that doesn’t cascade down to the, to the operational aspects. Does it work well? Do you think it works well, then, as a bridge between research and practice, for example? And what do you see the main benefits and challenges in that relationship?

22:13 Dr Mhairi Stewart: Maybe I can ask you, what do you mean by research and practice? What’s the practice that we’re influencing or learning from? 

22:21 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: I don’t know, I’m thinkingabout, like, you know, my field of expertise in tourism, where actually, you know, a lot of the public engagement it is to meet with, you know, industry people and, you know, small community groups. You know, communities are hosting tourists and so on. So, you know, this engagement with what we call industry sometimes.

22:39 Dr Mhairi Stewart: Yeah, I get you, yeah. So, linking research and practice is an absolute basic step in achieving the maximum impact and applicability of our research, but not only in that direction. So research to practice, researchers really need to be able to listen to what practice wishes we would research, some fields are much better at that, some academic fields are much better at that than others. My own field of practice, researchers don’t tend to be very good at listening to what practitioners want. We run a Practitioners’ Journal Club, and we’re generally stunned at just how inapplicable publications are to their, to our practice. Do you know what, they’re great publications, there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s really interesting stuff. But they’re not applicable to our real life. So I would love to see this public engagement as a bridge, with more listening on the side of the academy.

23:47 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: Is thatwhen you’re seeing, sorry for interrupting you, Mhairi, but when you’re saying that is it comes to mind straightaway open science, right? Is open science, for example, a tool but not a solution, exactly because of language, of a wider idea of accessibility that is not only paywalls, let’s say. So, you know, this open access can be helpful, but not…?

24:11 Dr Mhairi Stewart: I think you’ve totally hit the nail on the head there. And although I wouldn’t say that open access, or open science, is a tool for public engagement, I’d say it’s the other way around. Public engagement has to be a tool for open science. There’s huge accessibility issues there. And you know, if there’s somebody worried about a diabetes diagnosis is not going to generally be able to wade through the papers to find out what the latest trials might be. So engagement there, that’s where we need to make sure that that is a tool for translation, transcription maybe. We need to think about it being audience focused, goal orientated and again, this point of mutual benefits. So open science is to the benefit of everybody. Right? But is it really? Is it actually benefiting anybody? It is simply putting stuff out there? And then what is the lens? What is then what, the so what question, and I am quite passionate about this because that has to be then used as a reference point for society and research. So, research and practice even, to listen to each other and to really undertake conversations about what the next research questions should be, how can research be applied in the field, whatever that looks like? So yeah, I think public engagement is a tool for open science, rather, the other way around.

25:50 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: That’s interesting you saying that, you know, it came to my mind… the issues faced by the scientific community, during the pandemic, right, in terms of trust of their work, and the communication of scientific work and scientific doubts. Not, because, you know, scientific work is not without scientific doubts, to the community. And how under attack during COVID, scientific knowledge, research experiments, you know, we’re under, right? Does public engagement and obviously, like, I think the pandemic and lockdowns probably put another issue on that, you know, how do you see, how do you see that post-pandemic relationship between society and science? And what is the role of public engagement on that?

26:39 Dr Mhairi Stewart: I’m going to start by saying, let’s not forget that research is still one of the most trusted professions and groups in society in general. However, yes, there is this huge doubt and trust backlash that we still have to face and it’s very, very public. But I think it’s not necessarily just down to us, I think we were played by policymakers, by the media. So we need to build those relationships first, as well, alongside public and societal relationships. There’s lots of evidence out there that shows that we aren’t doing this well. We aren’t doing this in the most productive way. There’s publication after publication about how you build trust, how you come back from fake news, how you challenge fake news. And public engagement professionals are good at this because you cannot challenge people, you cannot tell people that their views are wrong. Article after article has shown that this just makes people double down in their beliefs. So public engagement professionals are really good at creating dialogue, researchers in general, and I am making sweeping statements, so I apologize to those who are very good at this. But researchers in general are really bad at starting that dialogue. They want to tell people and they are bad because of the passion they have, the belief they know they’re right. But they don’t realize that the societal figures are talking to also know they’re right. It’s about helping people to come to informed decisions. And I think that phrase informed decisions is really, really important. We can’t tell people what to believe. But we can help them to inform themselves. And that comes through, that in itself has to be addressed through the fake news agenda, through your social media bubbles, through all these other policy and media gateways that people are getting their information. So yes, I think we need to be sure that researchers are aware of how we address trust and doubt in our activity. And it’s not by speaking from our ivory tower. And it’s not necessarily just about dialogue. It’s about ensuring that we have, we are empowering people to make those decisions for themselves. And I don’t mind necessarily if people don’t come to exactly the same conclusion, or the conclusion I hope they come to that fits with mine, as long as they’re informed about it. And as long as they’re being thoughtful.

29:45 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: Does that bring its own ethical challenges? Does that, developing those conversations would that lead to some ethical challenges for public engagement officers?

29:57 Dr Mhairi Stewart: Absolutely, I mean, there are so many, so many ethical pitfalls in what I’ve just said, let’s be honest here. I said earlier I thought public engagements and science communication was maturing as a field of research. I think the fact that we are now looking at ethics and equity in engagement is actually an indicator of just how much so. So yes, there’s many ethical questions, to be honest, are we by allowing people to voice their views on vaccine hesitancy, are we, are we obliged to listen and to let other others listen to these counter views that we know are wrong? Let’s be honest, they are wrong, and they are dangerous. And how do we then manage that? I think we have to think about what the outcome is, what we really need, we can’t just tell people what to do that as would also be ethically wrong. So again, I think it really does come down to what I was saying you need to bring people to an informed decision for themselves. 

31:04 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: And I think that’s, I’ve heard a great point to lead us through our final question. It’s clear that there is a path that has been built for public engagement. What do you see in terms of future of tertiary education? And what role public engagement will play in this future of tertiary education?

31:24 Dr Mhairi Stewart: What I think will happen, and what I would like to see happen, might be slightly different things here. I’d like to see a further opening up of the sector in terms of civil contribution locally, and nationally, but also, of course, globally. Because we are a far more global enterprise than we were even three years ago, you know, we’re far, far more connected. And in this age of connectedness, we need to take on global responsibility for many reasons, including the planetary emergencies, plural, that we’re finding ourselves in. But I fear there’s a bit of a fight on our hands here, especially in terms of academic freedom. I still, still, despite how far we have come in engagement, have academics giving me the question, what on earth could this sector of society tell me about my research, and I have to say to them every single time, it’s not about what they can tell you about your research. It’s what they can tell you about the environment your research lives in. And the research can affect you. They affect that environment. So I think there is still a culture, there’s a crisis of culture in academia, I don’t think anyone can deny that. There [are] several crises of culture, whichever those look like. And this challenges our worth and our contribution to society. We can face those challenges, we have the tools, engagement is just one of them. But it is a strong tool, and it is an underused tool, to really, yeah, okay, I’ll say it promotes our worth and our contribution. But it’s not just about promoting, it’s about listening, it’s about ensuring that society can influence our institutions just as much as our institutions can influence society. So rather than just puff up and say, of course we’re very important. We also need to acknowledge other ways of knowing, other epistemologies. So, lived experience is incredibly important. Not one way of knowing, it is really, it is an expertise. We can’t just think of academic expertise, lived experience is an expertise. So again, we were just discussing the way we discuss truth and post-truth issues through dialogue, I think that is going to be the next thing that we really have to address through engagement and through our institutions. I think we need to also address engagements throughout the lifecycle of an academic career, including in teaching. We have lots of engaged teaching techniques that are starting to be taking precedence. And that’s important because the skills and attributes that our students are learning, both undergraduate and postgraduate, equips them to be better members of the workforce and society in the future, not just more productive ones that is, not just in an academic work setting. But I worry that actually now we’re distancing ourselves a little further and patting ourselves on the back and saying ‘well done’ without taking that long term view. We need sustained investment in our culture change so that we can invest in our own ongoing impact and contributions to society.

34:57 Professor Sandro Carnicelli: Mhairi, it’s been fascinating talking to you, I would like to say thank you so much for joining the podcast.

35:04 Dr Mhairi Stewart: Thank you.