The challenge of outreach

A number of recent trends, notably the rise of £9,250 fees and the changing agendas of Research Councils and funding bodies, have brought into sharper focus the civic duties of HE institutions to engage in outreach (see Johnson and Mutton 2018). These ‘duties’ necessarily shift according to the definition of outreach adopted, which historically has been grounded in a series of civic roles and activities (see Bowyer 1996) that serve to advance ideas and practices capable of fostering human well-being (Katula and Threnhauser 1999, 249–250). Such civic roles have included not just the advancement of knowledge, but the fostering of critical cognitive capacities. At various different points in the history of the academy, outreach has been seen as an integral facet of institutions embedded culturally in communities. In that regard the ‘Out’ morpheme is, perhaps, a misnomer, insofar as, physically, activities may take place within the academy’s walls. Wherever they take place, there is consensus that those activities involve engagement with those whose lives are oriented outside its walls, such that they are neither academics nor HE students. Individuals and communities engaged through outreach are diverse and myriad and cannot clearly be defined independently of context.

However, in the contemporary UK (and particularly English and Welsh) context, it has increasingly been ‘taken to apply to any activity that reaches out beyond higher education providers to engage with wider communities in order to raise HE awareness and aspirations’ (Moore, Sanders and Higham 2013, iii). This has often been taken to denote the practice of Widening Participation (WP) – the duty of institutions to encourage participation of students from a range of groups identified by the Office for Fair Access – the Office for Students from April 2018 – as being under-represented and disadvantaged (see OFFA 2018a). As part of the present fees regime, universities charging over the basic full-time tuition fee of £6,165 are legally obliged to submit Access Agreements (until September 2019, at which point they become Access and Participation Plans) to the OfS demonstrating how they intend to spend 30% of additional fee income on WP measures. In effect, this stems directly from Government policy and a recognition that inequality in participation in Higher Education is unpalatable in an era of supposed meritocracy. Accordingly, fulfilment of this narrow duty for outreach is often grounded instrumentally in recruitment (see Harris and Ridealgh 2016, 81; Johnson 2016), increasingly so in an era of marketisation that had previously been associated most clearly with U.S. contexts (see Long 2008, 20; UCU 2010) and competition between institutions and, even, departments fostered by the removal of caps on students (see Morgan 2016).

This has, clearly, changed Higher Education fundamentally (see The Economist 2017). This is evident in the shifting content of study, with increased focus on Employability and engagement with employers and the general public at the exit end of HE study as means of demonstrating value for money (see Harrison and Waller 2017). Here, too, outreach has become a site of innovation, providing work and civic experience for students as they approach graduation (see Newcastle University 2018; Lancaster University 2018c; 2018d). Similarly, outreach has provided opportunities for individual academics to integrate the Impact agenda into their work, including through participatory research (see Morton and Flemming 2012; Cook, et al. 2017), with research councils and the Research Excellence Framework (REF) increasingly concerned with the value of projects beyond academia (see AHRC 2018). Indeed, many different academics remain committed to Public Engagement (PE), through approaches such as citizen science, by virtue of commitment to intrinsic goods. In different ways, these agendas are placing pressure on academics in ways that may not have existed in the past. Indeed, interestingly, each of the WP, Employability and Impact agendas reflect deficit models, in which outreach is seen to be a means of overcoming fundamental deficits in value in HE, rather than as a core, intrinsic element of the academy itself. While they each constitute forms of outreach, outreach itself cannot be reduced to any or, indeed, the sum total of all of them – a fact apparent in any discussion with colleagues from outside the UK.

With that in mind, it is clear that UK academics, often in collaboration with non-academic partners, are dealing with these context-specific challenges in different, subject- and discipline-specific ways. It is precisely this academic, subject- and discipline-specific content and focus that distinguishes such approaches from non-academic, non-subject-specific approaches associated with outreach programmes advanced from the university centre (see discussion of shifting administrative roles in Whitchurch 2006). Although steps have been taken by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to close the gap between academics and WP practitioners by training the latter in research and fostering WP as a subject both alongside and beyond Educational Research departments (see OFFA 2018b), non-academic approaches generally focus on finance and aspiration.

While there are clear reference points for outreach professionals in developing, say, WP approaches (developed via OFFA guidance, as well as through WP professional networks and National Collaborative outreach Programme (NCOP) consortia, see Office for Students 2018; Dent et al. 2014), there is seldom guidance on good practice for academics, precisely because of divergences in motivation and content and, perhaps most importantly, because outreach seldom forms the central focus of professional life for someone appointed to a traditional academic position. Most outreach professionals are not academics and, given that outreach is often regarded as an administrative side-line (or distraction) for academics (see Johnson and Mutton 2018), the principles behind academic approaches to outreach are rarely disseminated, depriving colleagues of essential knowledge at a time in which many such endeavours, such Radical Pedagogies (see Hurley and Ritchie 2018), are in their experimental infancy. This is unfortunate, as academics can deliver, skilfully, the very subject- and discipline-specific content capable of engaging and interesting non-academic communities (see Clarke 2017; examples in Harris and Ridealgh 2016) in ways that non-subject-specific programmes may not. Indeed, as funded research opportunities become squeezed, forms of outreach represent avenues for academics to demonstrate genuine value of their work.

This website serves to collate, index, categorise and link examples of good practice from across the sector and to advance guidance for academics on a set of issues that affect forms of outreach. In some cases, the guidance offered is qualified and contextualised, reflecting disagreement about how best to proceed given various contingencies. This reflects the way in which approaches to outreach are, in some ways, necessarily innovative and organic, constantly subject to revision as the moving parts of a career and a set of relationships forged through outreach shift. Where there is divergence, the guidance offered is grounded in approaches that have worked for colleagues.

The projects indexed and guidance offered are subject to periodic revision. Contributions are encouraged from colleagues who wish to highlight their own practice or to develop elements of the guidance.

Please address all enquiries to the Association’s Co-ordinator, Matthew Johnson (


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Cook, T., Boote, J., Buckley, N., Vougioukalou, S. and Wright, M. (2017) ‘Accessing participatory research impact and legacy: developing the evidence base for participatory approaches in health research’, Educational Action Research, 25(4): 473-488, DOI:10.1080/09650792.2017.1326964.

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OFFA (2018b) ‘Writing for publication for widening participation practitioners’, OFFA, Bristol: OFFA, <> [Accessed 15 March 2018].

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