Public Uni – reflections on public engagement

Dr Ceryn Evans presented her research on higher education and civil society at Public  Uni’s 15th event at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. Public Uni is an event organised by Cardiff University and aims to provide researchers with an opportunity to communicate    their research in engaging, bite-sized ‘chunks’ to a ‘lay audience’. Each presenter has just 10 minutes to talk about their research, using only props or pictures to help them. Dr Evans gives us an insight into her Public Uni experience and emphasises what can be gained  from public engagement events such as this.

On the evening of Friday 31st March I found myself stood in a packed-out room in Chapter Arts Centre, in front of an audience of roughly 60 people, sharing some of the findings from the civil society research project I have been involved in for the past two years. This project explores the relationship between higher education and civil society by comparing graduates and non-graduates in terms of their participation in civil society (meaning their participation in voluntary organisations, politics, trade unions, community organisations, sports or religious groups, to name a few).

The project has also examined whether graduates who went to university when our higher education system was an ‘elite’ system (ie, when very small numbers of people went to university) are more or less likely to participate in civil society compared to graduates who have participated in a ‘massified’ higher education system. Our rational for this study reflected our concern that higher education policy has been preoccupied with the economic contribution that higher education makes to society, with very little consideration of its contribution to civil society. We wanted to bring this focus to the forefront in our research. Public Uni, I anticipated, would be a good place to communicate the impetus behind our research and share some of its emerging findings.

I began my presentation by asking the question, ‘Does going to university make good citizens out of people?’ The audience, I suspected, was less ‘general public’ and more ‘pseudo-academic,’ including the academic friends and colleagues of fellow presenters. The audience was, nonetheless, diverse in its interests, concerns, and challenges, and this was reflected in the sorts of questions people raised following my 10-minute presentation. These included searching questions about the extent to which all ‘civil society’ participation can be taken as an intrinsically ‘good thing’, and a question about whether some civil society organisations or associations might themselves be exclusive or elitist, which might help explain why graduates are more likely to participate in them.

Perhaps the most challenging, yet most instructive, critique I received was from an audience member who identified that a correlation between higher education and civic participation, rather than a causal relationship, can be the only logical conclusion drawn from the research. This was a stark learning experience; having not intended to imply that our research had established ‘causal’ relationships, it highlighted to me the importance of appropriate terminology when producing an engaging talk to a ‘lay audience’ whilst upholding the accuracy of the research findings. I also learnt the value in clarifying what we have not found from our research, as much as what we have.

I would recommend public engagement events such as this to colleagues as a hugely valuable and informative experience. The endeavour to communicate research to audiences not familiar with the topic in a way that is both interesting and engaging whilst representing ‘findings’ accurately and clearly is challenging, especially in such a short amount of time. Yet careful consideration in how it is done has the potential to yield considerable rewards, as engaging in debate and discussion with audiences beyond academia raises questions that might not otherwise be considered.