More people attend free public lectures at Cambridge than at any other University in the country, according to the business and community interaction survey published by the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) last month.

The survey, which attracted national headlines for its figures on business links, also contained a break down of the volume of social, community and cultural activity by institution. On almost every measure Cambridge does well.

Penny Wilson, Head of Community Affairs, said, “More than one million people benefit from voluntary activities undertaken by University of Cambridge staff and students. It is enormously important that this work is recognised. The HEFCE survey, with its focus on business as well as community interaction, is an important means of doing this.”

The HEFCE survey acknowledges that the volume and impact of social, community and cultural activities remains one of the most difficult parts of the knowledge exchange spectrum to measure in a robust way.

As income is a less meaningful proxy for such activity, the survey measures the amount of staff time invested in it and the number of attendees at events such as public lectures, recitals and university museum and arts venues.

The survey report notes: “All Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are engaged in such activities to a greater or lesser extent. Assumptions are often made that social, community and cultural activities are the hinterland of the specialist HE college, although many research-intensive and multi-disciplinary HEIs actually make great contributions.”

The University of Cambridge was placed first in the country for free-of-charge public lecture provision, with huge turnouts at public lectures giving Cambridge a 42 per cent higher attendance than any other university in the country.

Cambridge's own Community, Outreach and Widening Participation survey for 2005/06 found that 8,250 staff and students were involved in outreach or voluntary activities ranging from teaching Egyptology in prisons to befriending elderly house-bound residents in Cambridge.

These staff and students invested 370,000 hours their time, worth approximately £4,000,000 to the community.

More than one million people benefited from these voluntary activities and around £1 million was raised and donated to charity.

Case study

The Darwin Lectures at the University of Cambridge frequently bring in audiences of up to 700 people on Friday evenings, ranging in age from sixth-formers through to members of the University of the Third Age.

The Darwin Lectures consist of a series of eight public lectures which aim to present complex ideas in a manner which is accessible to interested general audiences.

Each series is based around a single theme such as ‘power', ‘identity' or ‘conflict' and takes a multi-disciplinary approach to the topic.

Recent speakers have included Kate Adie, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Cherie Booth and Professor Lord Robert Winston.

Elisabeth Leedham-Green, Fellow of Darwin College and one of the small team responsible for organising the lectures, says: “In providing a platform for leading figures to communicate their work and ideas to a general audience, the Darwin Lectures make an important contribution to the dissemination of knowledge and foster a spirit of inquiry that leaves audiences wanting to learn more.”

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