No business like show business for the academy
More people went to public events put on by UK universities in 2010-11 than are expected to attend the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Exhibitions, public lectures, arts events and educational shows at museums drew a total audience of 12.6 million people, up from 12 million in 2009-10.
In comparison, a total of 11 million tickets are available for the Games: 8.8 million for the Olympics and 2.2 million for the Paralympics.
Just over three-quarters of the events hosted by universities were free. The most popular were exhibitions at museums and galleries owned by universities, which attracted 7.8 million people, down by about 1 per cent from the year before.
Music, dance and dramatic art performances drew in 2.3 million people, more than two-thirds of whom paid to attend. There was also a 37 per cent rise in people going to public lectures, up to 1.5 million.
The figures, collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency as part of the latest Higher Education - Business and Community Interaction Survey, showed that academic staff gave over a total of 78,415 days to putting on the events, which equates to slightly less than half a day a year per scholar.
Paul Benneworth, a senior research associate in higher education policy studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, has studied how UK universities interact with marginalised communities. He said public support for universities depended more on such activity than on league table rankings.
However, he added that the figures hinted that academics "apparently feel pressure" from the impending research excellence framework, saying: "Less academic time is spent on 'non-REFable' activities, including gallery exhibitions and museum education."
The sector has recently stepped up its efforts to demonstrate the social, as opposed to the purely economic, benefits of universities.
In June 2011, a report called Degrees of Value: How Universities Benefit Society by Universities UK and left-leaning thinktank the New Economics Foundation argued that the academy added £1.3 billion of social value to the country.