What is ‘public’?
The question matters because it determines what constitutes universities’ public engagement activities, and how universities relate to ‘the public’.
HEFCE give the following definition of public engagement:
‘Public engagement’ involves specialists in higher education listening to, developing their understanding of, and interacting with non-specialists. The ‘public’ includes individuals and groups who do not currently have a formal relationship with an HEI through teaching, research or knowledge transfer.
There are a couple of difficulties with this definition.
Firstly, it is premised on an understanding of public engagement based on a ‘deficit model’ which segregates the expert from the public by their relative level of knowledge capital (Watermeyer, 2011). The model of public engagement described by Benneworth & Conway (2009) is a more symmetrical approach where the public is able to contribute to, as well as benefit from, the engagement process and outcomes.
Take as an example the public collaborative maths project polymath,which solved a tricky special case of the Hales-Jewett theorem by allowing members of the public to help solve the problem via an open access blog.
“Ah!” you might say, “But that was solved with the help of other academic mathematicians!” This is true, but Timothy Gowers, who maintains the project, insists that the public nature of the collaboration reduces the time it takes to find solutions, provides a public record of contributions and enables new perspectives and connections.
The fact that other experts are involved is only a problem if you do not include them within the group ‘public’.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines public as ‘open to or shared by all the people of an area or country’. The definition of public engagement should be fully inclusive, as depicted in the diagram below.
- Does public include private?
- What implications does this have for public engagement policy?
Watermeyer, R., 2011. Challenges for University Engagement in the UK: Towards a Public Academe? Higher Education Quarterly, 65(4), pp.386-410.