Science Communicators and Universities

Universities are facing a new challenge. One not new to other institutions in the UK. During the early 1990’s the NHS went through a period of change where competition was introduced. Now it is the turn of higher education. The question is, can it be ready in time?

In 2012 undergraduate course fees are set to rise and more emphasis is going to be placed on the value a student expects from their chosen institution. Previously, students would balance their decision on two important aspects but with one common goal. In combination these would be, “Where is the best place I can go with the grades I’ve got?”

This is due to change as students become a little more precious over their assets. With the additional factor of, “How much will it cost me?” we now introduce an element of value. In other words, “I want to go to the best place I can, with the grades I have, that will support me to get my best degree.”

Sure, many universities will still be ranked very highly because of the quality of their research. But the impact of this may be considered of less importance in the eyes of potential students than other factors such as teaching support and quality. After all, they want to feel that their teaching needs will be playing a bigger role in the life of academics. Research helps the reputation of the university but the teaching directly helps the student to thrive while there. It is a large part of what they are paying for. While it is true that an ever increasing emphasis is placed on learning and teaching quality, and much technology has been honed to help all involved, this focus is always going to be just one ball in the academic workload juggle.

So how can universities be ready for this? Is it down to clever marketing? Well, yes and no. Institutions are having to commit funds and support to help disadvantaged individuals strive to come to university. These are children who may be from areas of limited income, from schools that have little history of feeding universities, or maybe from families who have never experienced higher education. As some initiatives, such as AimHigher are being cut in government reforms, it is becoming more important for institutions to adopt their own programmes to fill this gap.

These programmes are different to teaching undergraduates. They are not for the purpose of knowledge transmission, assimilation, reflection and assessment, like the majority of undergraduate teaching. Rather, their entire purpose is to inspire pupils and capture the imagination. To encourage pupils to feel that they can learn at a higher level.

Of course, the upshot is that it is also a forum for university teachers to demonstrate their ability to fulfil this role. So, who is good at it? Look at the examples of communicators that are engaging the public with science. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with some and will probably be able to recall television documentaries and books that these ones have become famous for. Let’s be honest, how many aspiring physicists want to study at Manchester University, home of Brian Cox? Consider also Anthony Hilton, microbiologist on Grime Scene Investigation. Do you feel that you could learn something from his style of teaching or at least be inspired? This kind of ambassador does wonders for an institution.

In order to make the best of the opportunity to display our good practice of inspiring teaching we need a cultural shift. Academics rarely have the opportunity of undertaking public engagement with the topics they specialise in, and when they do, the result is often a mashup of boring information pitched at the wrong level. We need something more.

I am a full supporter of training academics to work with the media and there are very good reasons for doing this, especially in times when the hard work of research comes to the notice of the media. But to take advantage in the market for science communication we need to be encouraging universities to focus on creating specialist ambassadors in public engagement and science communicators, the next Brian Cox. Do a quick search and look at the list of people who have filled these public engagement roles in the UK’s universities. Do you feel that you would get inspirational teaching from those individuals? Do those universities strike you as inspirational places? Now is that always based on that individual’s research or the way they told you about what they did? Thought so.

All British universities need specialised science communicators and public engagement specialists. Those that do will fair well.