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How can universities demonstrate their value to the wider public?

Universities have never been in the public eye so much. The research “impact agenda” is posing tough questions about the relevance of university research. The huge hike in student fees is creating intense scrutiny of what “quality” and “value for money” look like in relation to the curriculum. The shift from public to private funding is raising profound questions about the public role of the university. Emerging areas of research – such as GM or nanotechnology – continue to provoke concern in society at large. And the 2009 Climategate scandal has demonstrated how exposed and vulnerable universities are to external challenge.

Meanwhile, Universities UK research last year showed that fewer than one in five people appreciated universities’ wider social impact.

How should universities respond to this intense external and political interest, and the sometimes profound misunderstanding or ignorance about their purposes and value?

First, there are three things that universities should not do:

• Fight among ourselves. Too often when higher education is represented in the media, it is mission groups scoring points off each other.

• Make empty promises: crafting magnificent rhetorical flourishes in mission statements is a safe place to hide, but is unlikely to address the legitimate concerns or interests society has in university work.

• Hope that simple proxies of impact – such as trumpeting the economic return that universities generate – are enough to make the case for our value, or make the problem go away. There are no magic bullets.

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