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Public engagement and impact are all familiar terms in the world of research. We have recently seen public engagement highlighted as an important route to impact in the Stern Review with emphasis placed on ensuring it is encouraged and fairly recognised during the next Research Excellence Framework (REF).

But how does it fit into the world of the student experience? This was the topic of some recent research published by HEFCE: ‘Students: Experience, engagement and communities’.

Students and public engagement

The research comprises 10 case studies from universities all over England with a variety of approaches to involving students in public engagement activities. We see examples from different levels of provision, through formal and informal learning routes and across the disciplines.

At the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, students lead international community-based projects rooted in collaboration. At the University of East London, staff have brought collaboration with community partners into the development of formal learning. And at the University of Manchester, engagement is embedded into doctoral provision.

Research and teaching

The case studies provide exemplars of that key link between research and teaching – learning. Involvement in public engagement provides students with an avenue to learn not only about cutting-edge work but about the process of research and the value of collaborating with external partners and communities.

These partners, in turn, benefit from the learning opportunities. For example, at Manchester Metropolitan University we saw students collaborate with teachers to develop school curricula content in microbiology, and at the University of Bristol non-governmental organisations worked with sociology, politics and international studies students to co-develop genuinely applicable business plans.

Skills

Students and staff report benefits from these activities to the process of teaching, to employability skills and to confidence. Public engagement activities enable students to get involved in ‘real-world’ learning experiences in which they can actively apply, develop and share their knowledge.

For example, through the University of Bristol’s ‘Berkeley Excavation Project’, archaeology students developed their skills in media engagement, critical analysis, communication and ethical issues, as well as their subject knowledge.

Development

Many of those interviewed for the case studies were considering how public engagement and the student experience could be further developed. For example, some considered the potential of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to act as a driver for public engagement with the student experience in the same way as the REF has influenced public engagement with research.

The TEF has recently been introduced to recognise and reward high-quality teaching, and ensure that prospective students can make informed choices. Higher education providers will be able to choose to articulate their teaching provision through the TEF aspects of quality: teaching quality, learning environment, and student outcomes and learning gain.

How can public engagement with the student experience work for you?

The full report provides some valuable food for thought. What might public engagement with the student experience mean in your context? How might this type of activity add value to your research, teaching and professional practice?

We hope that this provides inspiration and impetus for a wide range of other institutions to consider how their own approaches might benefit from public engagement with the student experience.