England’s knowledge exchange framework ‘could fizzle out’

Results show impact that ‘diverse’ sector has on communities, but questions remain on project’s future use and links to funding

May 5, 2021
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England’s knowledge exchange framework has demonstrated universities’ diverse impact on society, yet it risks becoming an “anomaly” because of a shift in the political direction of the Westminster government, it has been warned.

The first results of the assessment exercise, released at the end of March, have broadly been welcomed across the sector for showcasing different institutions’ strengths in activities such as commercialisation or business links.

Universities are not ranked or overtly scored and have been grouped in “clusters” of similar institutions to aid comparison, but some institutions have stood out for their above, or below, average performance within their respective clusters.

There were eye-catching results for some teaching-focused universities that might not have been lauded, at a national level, for their economic and social impact before.

One example is Solent University in Southampton, which scored in the top 10 per cent in the sector, way above its cluster average, in three areas, including working with business. Another example was the University of West London, in the top 10 per cent for two “perspectives” of knowledge exchange measured by the KEF.

England’s most research-intensive universities came in the top 20 per cent of all institutions, on average, for five out of seven perspectives.

But even within this grouping, there were varying results.

For instance, the University of Cambridge was scored as merely being in the top 50 per cent of institutions sector-wide for working with the public and third sectors; the University of Liverpool had a similar result for commercialisation; and London Business School scored in the bottom 50 per cent for working with business.

The most research-intensive cluster was also in the bottom 50 per cent, on average, for local growth and regeneration, a rating that might have been even lower were it not for one institution, the University of Birmingham, coming in the top 10 per cent.

Tomas Coates Ulrichsen, director of the Policy Evidence Unit for University Commercialisation and Innovation at Cambridge, said he had been struck by the way the KEF had highlighted the strengths of institutions whose praises may have been previously unsung.

“It is really good to see universities that may struggle to get into the limelight being highlighted for their knowledge exchange efforts in specific areas,” he said.

However, he stressed that there was still work to do to improve the data that the KEF is based on – largely the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction Survey – and the way results were presented.

For instance, some of the variability in university performance was possibly related to how institutions interpreted survey definitions, something that could be “tightened up” in some cases, Mr Ulrichsen said. Local regeneration scores, meanwhile, were likely to have been skewed by whether a university was in a deprived region receiving development funding.

A review of the KEF, already under way by Research England, would now be “really important” and it could still “take a few iterations of the KEF for it to settle down into a robust and durable framework”, Mr Ulrichsen said.

“Research England, working with the sector, needs to be given the space to reflect and tweak the approach where necessary, develop new metrics if needed, and strengthen the guidance as appropriate. Personally I would like to see this space given before using the KEF to allocate funding,” he added, referring to earlier plans to tie the exercise to the sector’s main knowledge exchange funding pot, the Higher Education Innovation Fund.

Karen Stanton, Solent’s vice-chancellor, said her university saw the KEF as a “very important part of the higher education landscape” given that it was trying to represent how institutions impacted their local communities.

“For Solent, those are real areas of strength, and I think as an institution it is valuable to be able to have an [exercise] that actually demonstrates the positive impact that we are having on those communities,” she said, adding that it was naturally to be hoped that it would “feed into future funding however that is framed”.

Professor Stanton, who also chairs Southampton Connect, a local community partnership involving city leaders from across different sectors, said that Solent saw itself with a vital role to play in the government’s “levelling-up” agenda of boosting growth in many urban areas outside London.

However, how the KEF now related to this was unclear given the change in political direction since the exercise was launched a few years ago, according to Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester.

While it played well with an apparent ministerial distrust of universities and the wish to make them more accountable, it did not align quite so neatly “with the feeling [in government] that there’s too much bureaucracy in the research system and universities and that kind of general idea that we’re not American enough”.

“If that kind of thinking persists, then the KEF looks like a bit of an anomaly,” he said.

There was also a bit of a conflict in policy between levelling-up – which might “depend on the less glamorous institutions that, we have always known, often have a closer relationship with local business” – and the drive for competition in a marketised undergraduate system, Dr Flanagan said.

While there was still a possibility that a “revamped KEF” could play a role in allocating the promised ramping-up of research funding, he thought it was “probably more likely it just fizzles out, or at least it’s 50-50” whether it survives.


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