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This article examines the tension between the rhetoric and reality of public engagement, seen through the eyes of a practitioner who has worked in both the arenas of community activism and as a public engagement broker within a UK Russell Group university over the course of the last 15 years. This has coincided with the rise to prominence of public engagement as a means of re-energising the debate about the University as an ‘ethical beacon’ and as an agent of civic and social life. This renewed engagement with ‘the public’ has created many powerful research programmes, conferences, debates, resources and toolkits, has fostered organisations and influenced policy. But has it maintained a focus on ‘community’ as a means of understanding and listening to real people, on the ground, and the issues and concerns that animate and concern them? And how far has ‘community’ been squeezed out because it is no longer part of the prevailing political discourse, supplanted by the more broadly interpreted - and possibly more palatable - concept of ‘public’?
Suggestions are offered to counter possible ambivalence on the behalf of universities with regard to engaging in ‘deep’ community engagement through both historical and new articulations of adult education and democracy.
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