Why does the public’s perception of academic research matter?

13 August 2014

By Mostafa Al-Mossallami, UK Higher Education International Unit.

A recent survey commissioned by Universities UK (UUK) asking the general public for their views on academic research (which was discussed in a previous submission) demonstrates the potential power of public opinion in the context of the post-2015 development agenda. After all, the public funds both academic research and development work through taxes, even before considering the fact that academic research can aid development in and of itself.

In much the same way that universities sought to engage the public and convey the relevance of their research to positively change public attitudes to academic research during this year's Universities Week, the case for international development sometimes needs to be argued. Just this month, the UK media reported that the National Audit Office (NAO) had criticised the Department for International Development (DFID) over a lack of transparency for a multimillion-pound investment to a development agency. Such reports fuel debate on whether taxpayer funding could be put to better use elsewhere.

The fact is that research and development go hand in hand. At the UK Higher Education International Unit, we've seen that many UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are working actively and effectively in and with developing countries. Universities who work on international development undoubtedly see it as part of their core charitable mission, but the arrangement is not solely altruistic as there are mutual institutional and research benefits. UK HEIs undertake a wide range of activities beyond research, which include developing teaching and learning capacity, and supporting innovation. From collaborative research projects in Afghanistan to scholarships for Zambian students, HEIs support development.

The UUK survey shows that 57% of the 2,000 respondents felt that if they could solve three world problems then ensuring that the world had enough food and water would definitely be one of them, and 47% said fuelling advances in medicine would definitely be another. This is why conveying the message to the public that research within universities can help tackle these issues is very important. Campaigns like the ACU's Beyond 2015 have a complementary role in highlighting the role HEIs play in development. By doing so, they demonstrate that - far from being stuck in an 'ivory tower' - universities are actively engaged in finding solutions to world problems that are a priority for the general public too.

The United Nations' twelve 'illustrative goals' sit well with this vision of higher education supporting development. Three of the goals are aligned with the results of the UUK survey: "ensure healthy lives"; "ensure food security and good nutrition" and "achieve universal water and sanitation". As these are common and global concerns, the goals are broad and set as a common aspiration for all countries, not just developing ones. While the most widely recognised benefit from higher education is the individual economic gain of greater lifetime income, there are also wider societal benefits. Graduates typically pay more taxes, tend to have better health, rely less on government social programmes, and are more likely to engage in civic activities. ['The Broader Societal Benefits of Higher Education', Alisa Cunningham].

There are also the downstream benefits and knock-on effects of a better educated population that can help create stable and peaceful societies and improve governance. These factors directly relate to several other UN illustrative goals, particularly: "end poverty"; "ensure good governance and effective institutions" and "ensure stable and peaceful societies". 

As we continue to consider the post-2015 development agenda, emphasising the role of higher education to policymakers will be important. But it will be just as important to help the public understand how the research undertaken at HEIs is relevant to their lives and that this research is also of universal benefit in dealing with global problems. 

This article by our Policy Officer for the Middle East and Africa, Mostafa Al-Mossallami, was originally written for the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), with thanks to them for allowing us to reproduce it here. The original article is available on the ACU website here

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