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Newcastle University’s Insights series of public lectures is renowned for having its finger on the pulse of current events and attracting big-name speakers to discuss the hottest topics in the public sphere. Public Lectures and Events Officer, Umbereen Rafiq, shares her own insight into the programme’s success – and on what makes 800 people flock to the Curtis Auditorium on a cold, wet February evening.

Tuesday 3 February 2015: Islamic State militants release a video of captured Jordanian Air Force pilot Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh being burned alive, locked in a cage. While the world reacts in horrified disbelief, the opening lecture on the Insights Spring programme takes on new and shocking significance as Patrick Cockburn, The Independent’s internationally respected and vastly experienced Middle East correspondent, steps up to the lectern in a packed Curtis Auditorium.

‘We plan our programme up to a year in advance,’ says Umbereen. ‘We knew that Patrick’s lecture, on How did the Islamic State come to exist and what can be done about it?, would be a popular one, but we couldn’t have envisaged that it would coincide with such a harrowing breaking news story. In the event, 800 people turned up to hear him speak.’

It is the University’s ability not only to tap into such highly topical issues, that have a wide public appeal, but also to attract speakers like Cockburn, who are at the absolute forefront of their field, that has led to the Insights series being widely regarded as the best programme of public lectures in the UK outside London. Recent programme highlights have included talks by Professor Uta Frith, a pioneer of research in autism and Asperger’s syndrome; Laura Bates, writer and founder of the Everyday Sexism project, and Professor John Curtice, who spoke on the outcome of the British Election.

The Insights programme acts as a platform for the University’s leading contribution to the intellectual, cultural and social life of the North East. The most recent series opened with Booker-Prizewinning author of The Regeneration Trilogy, Pat Barker, whose talk was timed to coincide with the commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War and with the Screaming Steel exhibition at the University’s Hatton Gallery, which explored work by artists and writers such as Paul Nash, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

‘Inviting speakers like Pat Barker, whose topics enable us to capitalise on other cultural activities in the University, city and region, is another important element of our programming,’ says Umbereen. ‘For example, we arranged a lecture celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten, which was accompanied by a lunchtime concert of Britten’s music. In 2011, we partnered with the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art to arrange a lecture by Grayson Perry to coincide with the Turner Prize exhibition at BALTIC.

‘While the programme is predominantly made up of speakers from outside the region, we also make an effort to include local speakers as well as our own home-grown talent to showcase the cutting-edge research taking place here at the University, at both staff and student level. Each semester’s programme gives early career researchers an opportunity to present their work to a large public audience,’ says Umbereen.

Many of the Insights lectures are recorded and made available online, attracting an impressive virtual and global audience. With thousands of downloads and more than a quarter of a million visitors, the programme’s profile is now established worldwide.

With the Insights programme typically featuring some 45 high-profile lectures every year, it is the bedrock of the University’s public engagement activity. ‘All our lectures are free of charge and we always ensure we have an appealing, diverse, accessible and inclusive programme year after year. We’re delighted to continually attract and engage such wide and varied audiences,’ says Umbereen.

The lecture programme runs from October to May during term time; printed programmes are published twice yearly in September and January. Details about upcoming events can be found online at:


published on: 3 August 2015