The forthcoming knowledge exchange framework is likely to determine the distribution of institutional funding only “in the longer term”, Research England has said.
At one stage, there were suggestions that the results of the exercise – evaluating universities’ performance in areas such as commercialisation and industry collaboration – could have been used to inform the disbursal of the £213 million Higher Education Innovation Fund as early as the coming academic year.
But, publishing the results of a consultation and a pilot exercise, Research England said that it wanted to “evaluate the first iteration of the KEF” – due to take place during 2019-20 – before deciding on how to establish a link with funding allocations.
The report shows that 72 per cent of respondents agree or somewhat agree that the overall proposals for the KEF – which will see universities banded into clusters and assessed relative to the average of peers within their groups – were appropriate. There are persisting concerns about whether some of the proposed metrics will accurately capture institutions’ activities.
However, implementing the evaluation seems likely to become a renewed priority now that Jo Johnson has returned as universities minister because he announced it during his first spell in office.
In its report, Research England says that the question of the KEF’s role in funding allocations “needs to be approached carefully” given that the strong return on HEIF investment needs to be “protected”.
“Our current thinking is therefore to evaluate the first iteration of the KEF, to ensure it works as intended and is succeeding in its aims…and explore further ways to use it to inform funding in the longer term,” the report says. “Such evaluation would explore any effects on behaviour, robustness of the metrics, and cost/burden balance of all aspects of the KEF, including the narrative statements.”
Given that the KEF will draw largely on metrics from the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey, published each April, the earliest that the assessment could be conducted would be after that date. However, the likely need to consult on changes to the funding formula could present an obstacle to introducing that for 2020-21, even if that were to be a preferred option.
Hamish McAlpine, Research England’s head of knowledge exchange data and evidence, told Times Higher Education that the funding link was “something we are actively considering, but I don’t think it can happen extremely quickly”.
“We would have to look at how the KEF was driving behaviour before we could know how best to link it to funding,” he said.
Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said that this sounded “very sensible”.
“Maintaining the existing approach [of HEIF allocation] for the time being and looking to see how well the KEF compares with the existing measures should allow [Research England] to make for a smooth transition later,” he said.
Dr McAlpine characterised the consultation responses as offering a “cautious welcome”. Some respondents warned that metrics based on income data would fail to fully capture institutions’ collaborations with business, charities and the public sector.
Research England says that it will consider whether alternative metrics could measure areas such as universities’ investment in local growth and income from facilities and equipment.
Other proposed metrics would be considered as part of a review of the HE-BCI survey, it says, because many of them are based on data that are not currently gathered systematically.
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