The university sector in the UK has been the subject of massive government attention in recent years. There probably isn’t another industry on the planet that is now so thoroughly monitored, scrutinised, and held constantly accountable.
When it comes to the measurement of a university’s academic expertise, this year the (government agency) watchdogs have really sunk their teeth into academia.
The last day of March 2021 as a particular measurement milestone. Firstly, it was the deadline for submissions to the Research Excellence Framework (REF). This every-now-and-again process is used to rate departmental research performance and inform levels of future public research funding. At the same time, we saw the announcement of the UK government’s Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) results. The KEF indicates a university’s ability to connect and deliver valuable applied expertise for business and society. Faculty experts now face more dashboards and indicators than a Volvo XC (apparently the best-selling car among academics – judging by my visits to 100+ campuses).
All this combined, with the implications of Brexit and the reduction of the UK’s International Development Budget and associated GCRF investment (due to the economic ravages of COVID-19), means we are now facing a much smaller pot to cover the valuable investigatory work of the UK’s 200,000+ academics. Even commercial sources of research are being squeezed as businesses start to recover and ‘build back better’.
As a consequence, it has never been more vital for university researchers to stand-out from the crowd, to achieve public attention for their expertise, and to highlight the “impact” and value of the real-world difference they are making.
Yet too many academics are simply publicity-shy and look down on attempts to have their work promoted outside of academia. Surely this now has to change. If we want these experts to secure the much-needed investment to maintain their work, then they should no longer hide in the shadows.
As a former in-house university comms officer, I know the difficulties that university leaders, research and business development managers, marketing and press office professionals face daily in trying to convince academic experts to embrace external exposure.
Among the more obvious routes into the limelight are better online presence and greater involvement with social and mainstream media. The challenge, though, is finding the right connections: journalists find it hard to seek out the right experts; academics don’t feel well-equipped enough to handle interviews or to express themselves with common clarity; and online explanations of who these experts (on university websites) are dull and cloaked in mysterious, inaccessible jargon-filled terminology.
While I am a big fan of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (in Higher Education) and the Science Media Centre (and the more recent Education Media Centre) – however, their efforts alone aren’t enough. We now need a more intensive communal effort to encourage academics to overcome their reluctance and hesitancy, to step up and take up the reigns of responsibility for promoting their (mostly publicly-funded) activities, innovations and expertise.
In turn this will only serve to win over public perception of universities and demonstrate the value of academia – at a time when the tide is turning against respect for higher education and is eroding sustained investment in academic research.