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What does an engaged university look like?

By Newcastle University
Newcastle University Arches - central campus

At Newcastle University we want to maximise the positive impact we can achieve locally and globally.

Our engagement team works with colleagues to strengthen relationships between the University and its external partners and communities. Led by Andrea Henderson, Head of Engagement, the team's work ensures that the benefits of research and teaching are shared within Newcastle upon Tyne and beyond. 

We spoke to Andrea to explore what engagement means to Newcastle, and to learn more about engagement projects, including the first Discover Festival.


    1. What does engagement mean for Newcastle University?
    2. Does engagement go beyond research and teaching?
    3. How has engagement become such an important aspect of the University's work?
    4. How do the University's strengths feed into engagement activities?
    5. Can you give some examples of the University's partnerships?
    6. Do you have any moments you're particularly proud of?

What does engagement mean for Newcastle University?

Engagement describes how the benefits of our research and teaching go beyond the University, in a mutually beneficial way.

So, whoever we're collaborating with, whether it be a community organisation, a business or policymakers, there should be benefits for the University and our external partners or communities.

We engage with many audiences within the commercial sector, public sector, health sector, community and voluntary organisations, and schools and colleges. And within those very wide-ranging audiences, there are lots of different types of activity that we might undertake. Exhibitions, performances, co-produced research, focus groups, citizen science, and festivals or schools outreach, for example.

Does engagement go beyond research and teaching?

When we define engagement, we mostly talk about research and teaching. But, of course, there’s a wider civic role that plays a part too. We’re a very large institution, with huge numbers of staff and students with wide-ranging sets of skills. We have great potential to make a positive impact on the city.

Students have something called Go Volunteer, led by our Students’ Union. It offers very involved volunteering opportunities for students looking for a deeper experience. They make strong connections and get really immersed in the work of organisations locally.

For professional services staff, we have a volunteering policy that allows them to take days to do volunteering work. Again, they're quite involved, for example, board membership or school governorship.

PARTNERS Summer School 1000 x 667

Year 13 students take part in lab experiments as part of our PARTNERS Academic Summer School (PASS). Pass is designed to give an early introduction to various aspects of Higher Education study and allows students to meet some undergraduate lecturers, use our facilities and get to know other students.

Widening participation also sits within the Engagement and Place strategy. That's about giving everybody the best possible chance of being able to succeed, regardless of their background. Our PARTNERS scheme has been running since 2000 and is one of the most well-established supported entry routes to higher education of its kind.

Widening participation is not just about recruiting more students to come to us, but also to raise aspirations in general by encouraging young people to think about careers in STEM, for example.

How has engagement become such an important aspect of the University’s work?

The University was created to respond to local needs. We have origins in engineering and medical research and teaching and a very long history of consciously seeking to make a positive impact locally, nationally and globally.

We were one of the first universities to have a Pro Vice Chancellor for Engagement, so the idea is deeply embedded within our senior leadership team.

In July 2021, we launched our Civic University Agreement. In partnership with Northumbria University, Newcastle City Council, the NHS and the voluntary sector, the agreement harnesses the power of over 10,000 staff and 50,000 students to support the health, wealth and wellbeing of people living in Newcastle.

This year we’ve created a joint post between ourselves and Northumbria University to manage the programme for the Collaborative Newcastle University Agreement. I believe we will be the first universities to do something like this.

The University exists for societal benefit. That's front and centre within our vision. Essentially, engagement is part of our DNA. It's always been there.

How do the University’s strengths feed into engagement activities?

We have five key strengths at Newcastle: ageing and health, cities and place, culture and creative arts, one planet, and data. They’re very wide-ranging themes that have a lot of relevance in our region as well as on a bigger scale globally.

Of course, not all our work fits neatly into those five themes. Our Centres of Research Excellence cover even more areas, allowing the kind of cross-disciplinary work that will translate into real benefits to real people. Engagement is at the heart of the way these centres operate.

As a research-intensive university, we're able to apply our world-leading research to solve challenges across the world. And engagement is built into the process from the beginning. It's vital that our research and our teaching responds to the needs of society, but also that it is informed by society. There needs to be two-way communication.

We support early career researchers to think about engagement from the outset so they can develop skills in collaboration and embed engagement into the way they work.

Engagement is part of the teaching process too. Students experience guest lectures from people working in real-world environments, as well as things like action learning projects, where they go beyond the University to deliver something tangible alongside one of our partners, for example, the Sofia wind farm partnership.

Can you give some examples of the University’s partnerships?

There are hundreds. One example of an important strategic partnership is that we're a founding member of Tyne & Wear Citizens, a regional chapter of Citizens UK. Through listening exercises with colleagues and local people, we can understand the challenges they face and use this to bring about change. We now host a community organiser two days a week to take these initiatives forward.

Hatton Gallery 1200 x 801

Visitors enjoy the diverse works on display at the Hatton Gallery. The Hatton stages an ongoing programme of modern and contemporary art exhibitions and events including artist and curator talks and family activities. 

We also have two of the Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) venues on our campus (the Great North Museum: Hancock and the Hatton Gallery). Working with these and the wider TWAM world-class venues on exhibitions, performances and events helps our work to reach a much wider audience. The venues benefit from research that looks at their existing collections and practice from new perspectives.

Our partnerships with commercial organisations can have a far-reaching impact too. Working with Siemens, P&G, or Arup, for example, we can use our research to find innovative solutions to real-world problems. The University and the commercial partner both benefit through knowledge exchange, sharing facilities, technology transfer, student placements, and degree apprenticeships.

Do you have any moments you’re particularly proud of?

Something that we’re all proud of is our Gold Engage Watermark Award from the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). It involved an 18-month process of gathering evidence of how we support engagement, including focus groups and surveys with both partners, academic and professional staff, and many of our senior leaders.

We created an action plan which responded to the NCCPE areas for development. That plan has informed our practice, including the development of the Discover Festival.

It’s important to note that engagement happens across the University. We have an Engagement and Place team, but our Gold Watermark was really recognition of sustained engagement over a very long period by a lot of colleagues.

In terms of individual projects, there are so many amazing things happening that it’s hard to pick. Our Engagement and Place Awards recognise some of the most impactful examples of engagement from across the University, such as the Young@Heart Clinic. Led by students, this is a mobile clinic which tests and screens for common health issues in communities with little access to health and lifestyle support. This project addresses the need for clinical placements for our students, while addressing the health inequalities that exist across our city.

Vindolanda App - stories from the frontierA screenshot from 'The Missing Dead' video game. The unique video game, developed with our partners at the Vindolanda Trust, helps open up the past to young people and encourages engagement with history through a different learning environment.

Another great example is the partnership with the Vindolanda Trust which manages the Vindolanda Roman fort and museum. This project explores the scope of contemporary art commissioning at the site and has transformed the way the trust considers curatorial approaches and methods of interpretation. One project includes a unique video game which transforms how children learn about life on Hadrian’s Wall.

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Tags: Working with Business, Cities and Place, Engagement