The government’s plans to create a knowledge exchange framework risk being a “patent-counting exercise” that adds to reporting burdens, but universities should recognise the need to be “demonstrably relevant”, according to sector observers.
The KEF, which the government intends to consult on with the higher education sector, would be aimed at measuring universities’ knowledge exchange and business collaboration.
Announcing the plans at the Higher Education Funding Council for England annual conference in London on 12 October, universities and science minister Jo Johnson said that universities “must do more” to strengthen links with businesses and local communities, and, given the major cash injection awarded to research last year, must be made more publicly accountable for their activities.
Meanwhile, a government-commissioned report on the UK's research strength has finally been published. The report, compiled by Elsevier, says: "There are growing indications that the UK is losing ground in the research leadership stakes and may not be able to sustain its position as a world-leading research nation in the long term."
The report, which calls China's growing research strength the "biggest pressure on the UK and others", was held for nine months before being published at the same time as Mr Johnson's speech, leading to accusations the government was "burying bad news".
The aim of the KEF, which would follow on from the existing teaching excellence framework and research excellence framework, is to assess institutions on their success in the commercial sector.
Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London and one of the authors of The Metric Tide, an independent review of the use of metrics in research assessment, said: “There is potential for duplication [with impact elements of the REF] but from what Jo Johnson was suggesting it seems the KEF will just be using information that universities are already gathering.
“He may be well-intentioned about not adding yet another reporting burden to universities, but the wheels are already turning on REF 2021 and the TEF is going to get even more complicated.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, suggested that given the work already done by universities in this field, the assessment could become nothing more than a “patent-counting exercise”.
“The way that the KEF has been presented suggests it will emphasise and focus on IP, commercialisation and spin-outs,” she said. “[It] will therefore benefit universities that work in areas that have these features as a key part – for example, pharma, engineering and scientific discovery.”
The KEF will be led by the new Research England body. Mr Johnson stressed that details of the framework are still at an early stage, but that industry leaders and the education sector would be consulted on the KEF’s development.
The assessment will be directly linked to allocations from the Higher Education Innovation Fund (boosted by £40 million to £200 million under the plans) and, much like the REF and TEF, will be assessed on a cyclical basis – although the frequency is yet to be determined.
Given that public spending on research has increased, university accountability is inevitable, Professor Curry said.
“The research community has to be prepared to participate in that if it wants to maintain public trust,” he said. “At the same time, one wants to be mindful of how proportionate the accounting measures are.
“Given the political landscape that follows the EU referendum, I think we have to be ever more mindful that activities in both research and teaching in universities have to be demonstrably relevant to all parts of the country.”
James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield and chair of The Metric Tide review, said: “A lot of what is being proposed as I understand it is quite sensible in terms of bringing a slightly clearer strategic framework towards mapping what is already going on.
“Labelling it as another framework is perhaps unhelpful in this respect, because it indicates a burden of pressure that doesn’t seem to be needed and is not necessarily there.”