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Matt Francis, Public Affairs Manager, University of Stirling

15 December 2020, 4:40 UTC Share

Increasing capacity for policy engagement through training and partnership

Matt Francis, Public Affairs Manager, reflects on the development of policy engagement activity at the University of Stirling.

November 2020 marked three years since I joined the University of Stirling to set up its public affairs function. Based within the communications team, the remit of my new role was to develop and support the University’s institutional engagement with political and governmental stakeholders, together with propelling forward knowledge exchange within the policymaking arena.

Raising the profile of Stirling’s transformative research is a central objective of the University’s Strategic Plan 2016-2021. With world-leading work in aquaculture, ageing, and environmental science, there is enormous potential to contribute to both policy and practice, whether at a local level or at a global scale.

That potential was recognised through the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal, which will see the University spearhead a Ł39 million package of investment from the UK and Scottish Governments aimed at pioneering productivity and innovation in the global aquaculture sector, driving inclusive and sustainable growth, and realising Scotland’s ambitious aspirations around the net zero agenda.

Stirling researchers are already driving innovations in policy, supporting a world that is fairer, healthier, and greener, so I was by no means starting from scratch. The challenge was to develop a function which supported enhanced policy engagement without establishing a formal policy unit or requiring a substantial increase in resources.

The answer was to increase policy engagement capacity across the University by upskilling our researchers through providing the insights, resources and guidance to enable them to engage effectively. In doing so, partnership - including Stirling’s membership of UPEN - has been central to our approach.

As someone who moved to higher education from commercial lobbying, it became clear that policy engagement within the sector presents distinct opportunities but also unique challenges. Membership of UPEN has been a valuable opportunity to learn from colleagues across higher education, as our diverse and burgeoning community of practice continues to expand. Likewise, the UK Parliament’s Knowledge Exchange Unit is an invaluable stakeholder, while in Scotland institutions are equally well served by the Scottish Policy and Research Exchange.

Developing a suite of guidance and training materials formed the backbone of Stirling’s upskilling activity, working with colleagues across the University to create both a freestanding toolkit and to integrate training into our wider programme of academic development. Learning from other institutions, we also established the Stirling Public Policy Hub to place our policy-centric outputs and material together in a one-stop-shop. Curating and updating these resources to support our researchers is an ongoing task, reflecting the latest insights and assets. More exciting developments are in the pipeline.

As I engage with researchers across the University, I am struck by the seemingly limitless potential for research to inform every aspect of policy development. Often it feels as if my work with our researchers only ever scratches the surface of the ground-breaking work that is being undertaken within just a few hundred metres of my desk.

As a ‘team of one’, I can’t hope to oversee or work on every policy engagement initiative, nor see every exercise in influence or brokerage through from inception to conclusion. However, I know that the system that we have put in place is bearing fruit, which I have witnessed through the University’s response to COVID-19.

Looking ahead to the next three years, the latest challenges are already presenting themselves as the world moves beyond the coronavirus pandemic, Europe moves beyond Brexit, and the UK faces renewed questions over its future. Academic research will have a distinct role to play in guiding us through those unchartered waters, and Stirling researchers are already laying the foundations for that contribution. Through equipping our academic staff with the insights, resources and the know-how to engage effectively, I know that they will rise to that challenge.

Matt Francis is Public Affairs Manager at the University of Stirling.

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