Geraldine Van Beuren: We must show that universities are useful

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The Independent Online

So long as universities are regarded as ivory towers, university funding will not be seen as a priority compared with primary schooling or hospitals. Everyone uses primary schools and hospitals; fewer use universities.

The proposed rating of academics to include the public impact of their research may, ironically, offer grounds for universities to resist bigger cuts, even though the plans on impact assessment have been rejected by many academics. If universities are to have more impact, funding should not be cut so drastically.

Resisting further cuts will only be successful if universities develop as one of their principal goals the recognition by society as a whole, and not just by a narrow stratum, that they benefit, directly and indirectly the entire community. Such a reshaping of the popular image of universities will help us to resist reductions in public expenditure.

Universities, despite recent investment, are still relatively underfunded: we spend only 0.9 per cent of our GDP on universities compared to the Nordic states which range between 1.5 to 2 per cent, and the USA's 1 per cent.

The problem is not impact itself but how the impact of scholarship is defined. Impact focusing only on economic profit is clearly indefensible. It simply makes into policy Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic; someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. But impact which focuses on the short and long-term benefits to the local, national and international community embraces a wide range of subjects, even subjects not immediately obvious, such as philosophy. The writings of A C Grayling show how philosophy can be made popular and the blog of Mary Beard illustrates the wider appeal of classics.

Engaging publicly will help make universities more popular and strengthen the case against bigger financial cuts. The Research Councils UK's recent "What's in it for me? The Public Benefits of Public Engagement for Researchers", shows many significant benefits for scholars from public engagement. These include earlier promotion, the development of academics' influence and skills, and an increase in enthusiasm for research.

Public engagement provides significant benefits for scholarship in a growing range of disciplines. Public participation directly improved the research results in developing a new flood risk model developed by Sarah Whatmore at Oxford. As Dame Nancy Rothwell, professor of physiology at Manchester, observes: "There is a naivety as to the questions that we are asked in public engagement that helps us see links we might otherwise overlook, for example, 'If I have flu, am I more likely to have a stroke?'"

The feedback from such public engagement shows that the public value being consulted, and that such participation helps people understand what a university is and the value of research.

The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement is seeking to stimulate a culture change in how universities engage the public. Assessing the impact of research in this way results in mutual benefits for both the academy and society, as the increasing number of chairs relating to public understanding also bears witness.

Although the majority of British academic chairs relating to public understanding are linked to the public understanding of science, such as Cambridge's professorship in the public understanding of risk and Oxford's professor for the public understanding of science, such positions are equally beneficial to the arts and the humanities.

When I held a chair in human rights at the University of Cape Town, scholarship that benefited the community was expressly included in my contract. It is no coincidence that academics in Africa retain the status and respect that some feel has been lost here. In 2009, Warwick University created a senior fellowship in the public understanding of philosophy; such positions ought to be created in a wider range of disciplines.

Universities cannot have it both ways – ask for more influence on public policy but seek to exclude the impact of public policy contributions from assessment. Including public impact in assessment can help them resist further cuts.

The writer is Professor of International Human Rights Law at Queen Mary, University of London and Visiting Fellow, Kellogg College, Oxford