Copper’s Fiona Woolston reflects on the challenges and opportunities universities face when positioning themselves to the wider public.

Starting in 2012 with the rise of student fees, universities are facing a complex environment, which has led to an attitude change towards the sector. Traditionally, universities were able to operate relatively independently, and justified their societal benefit through research outcomes. However, this is no longer enough. Yet this challenge presents an opportunity for forward-thinking institutions to reinvent themselves.

Although there are specific economic challenges faced by universities, it is a shift in public attitude which has had the greatest impact. In the UK, the belief that key institutions are credible and publicly beneficial is declining,  and universities have fallen victim to this wide crisis in trust. Their range of stakeholders has therefore broadened beyond their staff and students to include the wider public.

This has led to universities being placed under increasing pressure to demonstrate public worth, beyond traditional research impact. Yet some universities are starting to accept this challenge, and use it as an opportunity to connect with the public by proactively seeking to learn from, engage and work with them.

This requires a culture change within the institutions; moving from only transmitting knowledge, to creating a two-way dialogue. The University of Birmingham, for instance, is currently developing a free public space for collaborative working at the heart of the city. As a result, it is hoped the institution can further validate how it supports regional prosperity.

But developing an active public presence presents challenges, and this is where the role of engagement and communications comes to the forefront. Although universities increasingly want to prove their public benefit, there remain enduring views that universities are places of privilege that do not ‘understand’ wider society. To successfully change these perceptions, universities first need to understand what their local community needs and wants. Direct engagement will provide evidence that universities take their neighbours’ opinions seriously and are willing to work collaboratively.

We have extensive experience in working with decision makers to deliver a range of initiatives within local communities.  Our strategic insight and innovative communications campaigns truly connect and change perceptions, which could help universities achieve their community engagement objectives. Most recently, Copper has placed emphasis on recruiting staff from the university sector with first-hand experience of overcoming these challenges and effectively maximising potential opportunities.

If universities seek to reinvent themselves and engage with communities more effectively, there is a world of opportunities open to them. Copper is leading the way in helping organisations realise these goals.

Fiona Woolston

Fiona specialises in building relations with local communities, the public and political stakeholders to gain a popular mandate for universities and organisations across the third sector. Her experience includes the University of Birmingham and a number of charities.