This blog has been written by Professor Michael Scott, Co-Director of the Warwick Institute of Engagement. You can contact Michael at [email protected].
It has never been more important for us to reach out and engage the world around us, especially in an era of national lockdowns and the social disconnect associated with COVID-19.
But what does ‘engagement’ really mean at a higher education level? Engagement is all about universities working with those outside academia to share research, to collaborate on ideas and to make knowledge accessible to all. Through this, both we and our audiences gain valuable interaction and dialogue, working together for a fairer (and arguably better) society.
At the University of Warwick we are keen to take this one step further by blending engagement into our student experience. Enabling our students to become ‘engagers’ (i.e. helping them learn and practice the skills necessary to pursue successful public engagement, and working with them to understand the benefits that come from such activities) means that the next generation are trained with valuable skills. Furthermore, they are given the opportunity to see for themselves the value of engagement and partnership in our society and graduate as ready future ambassadors of their higher education institution.
What does this look like on a practical level?
In July 2018, I launched the Warwick Classics Network. Based in our Department of Classics and Ancient History, the Network’s aim was to work face-to-face (in those pre-COVID times) with schools across Warwickshire and the West Midlands to increase access to classical subjects.
By October 2019, 20 of our undergraduate students were actively involved in engaging with schools and students across the region by helping out at our school events, creating a travelling museum of ancient artefacts and leading sessions in local schools. We found that students loved the opportunity to engage others in their subject and often declared it one of the most meaningful experiences of their degree – for some because it was an outreach lecture that had sparked their own interest in the subject when they were at school.
Moreover, we found that students appreciated the opportunity to co-produce materials, events and projects with staff – and that the Department benefited from the closer-knit community of staff and students in a wide variety of ways. This experience is not confined to the Classics Department. Similar staff-student co-produced engagement projects are happening across the University (for example, our students are involved in taking STEM demonstrations out to schools and assist with the Warwick Science Christmas Lectures, as well as with the Warwick ‘Bright Stars’ programme) and have been seen to produce a similar spread of benefits for students and Departments.
Building on these successes, this year the University of Warwick has launched its first ever Public Engagement module. The module gives students a theoretical and practical introduction to public engagement, enabling them to come away with a strong knowledge of the complex challenges involved with engaging with the wider public (especially right now), alongside the rewards engagement can bring to themselves, universities and the wider world. The module builds the confidence and skills to apply this learning to future research and careers outside academia. The module will also challenge students to develop their own engagement project which will be delivered to a public online forum at the end of their course as a summative assessment project.
Our experience has been that undergraduate student involvement in engagement projects has not just benefits for student skills and employability, but also has significant knock-on effects for student/staff collegiality, department coherence and student satisfaction. This is, we intend, just the beginning for the place of engagement in the Warwick student experience. What has held us back so far is the lack of an interdisciplinary hub for uniting those experienced in engagement work across the University to develop a more strategic and co-ordinated approach to engagement at both staff and student level. As a result, myself and Jane Furze, current Director of Public Engagement at Warwick, have this month launched as Co-Directors the Warwick Institute of Engagement.
The Institute will incorporate the current Public Engagement team, and crucially, give all staff and students at the University a voice in developing the strategic direction for engagement at Warwick. We will be recruiting a series of Institute Foundation Fellows from across the University so that staff, students and the Institute Engagement team can work together to develop the University’s engagement work in three main areas: for staff; for students; and for the University and its local, regional and national communities.
Through a series of discussion Learning Circles comprised of Fellows – which includes students and staff – the Institute will lead on the place of engagement within the University. This of course comes at a time when universities are increasingly being asked to demonstrate their strategic thinking around knowledge exchange with a wide range of publics, partners, businesses, organisations and communities. Yet we believe we at Warwick are taking this work one step further by thinking simultaneously about how we weave our engagement with the wider world into our student experience. In relation to incorporating engagement as part of the Warwick student experience, this is likely to unfold in the following ways:
- the expansion of the current Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning Engagement module;
- the development of more modules within different faculties, departments and particular degree programmes with a subject-specific focus on engagement techniques;
- contributions by the Institute to more department specific modules and programmes to deliver an ‘engagement element’ to subject specific studies;
- the development of a university-wide Warwick Students’ Engagement Conference to enable students from different disciplines (and perhaps taking different Engagement/Communication modules) to discuss and demonstrate their engagement skills with one another and with the wider public;
- the development of a suite of online and in-person training programmes for postgraduate and early career staff, focused around different formats and forums of engagement; and
- support for departments to develop more forms of both formative and summative assessment, which incorporate engaging with the public.
We believe that students, staff, departments and the university have much to gain from exploring the possibilities of engaging with the public as part of a 21st century university student experience. We would love to hear from – and work with – those in other universities considering incorporating engagement more in their student programmes.