Public engagement professionals in a prestige economy: Ghosts in the machine

Richard P Watermeyer*, Gene Rowe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)
65 Downloads (Pure)


Over the last decade there has been significant investment made by a UK higher education policy and funding community in embedding ‘public engagement’ within British universities. While some public engagement is undertaken by university staff, - often on a voluntary and unpaid basis (Viewforth 2018) - much is carried out by public engagement professionals (PEPs), typically from within professional services divisions. Institutional leadership for this activity is liable to be complicated by interactions between academic and non-academic staff, although the nature of relationships between these and their impact on the success of engagement has been unclear. The following account, based upon a multi-site case study of institutional leadership for public engagement, accordingly considers, through a Bourdieusian lens, the challenges faced by PEPs as ‘non-academics’ working within the UK’s university sector as a ‘prestige economy’ (Blackmore and Kandiko 2011). It reveals their struggle to gain a professional parity of esteem with academics, and how the discrediting of their expertise by the latter forms a challenge to their leadership and thus their displacement within universities as highly stratified organisations. Ergo, we find the evanescing of public engagement as a formal institutional commitment.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalStudies in Higher Education
Early online date16 Feb 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Society for Research into Higher Education.


  • British higher education
  • enablers of engagement
  • engagement
  • organisational culture
  • professional identity


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