Ministers’ hopes that a new assessment of UK universities’ knowledge exchange activities could be linked to the allocation of funding will be “nearly impossible” to achieve in time for the 2019-20 academic year, a conference has heard.
The knowledge exchange framework – announced last October by Jo Johnson, the former universities minister – aims to measure industry collaboration and commercialisation activities. It is expected to be used in England to inform some funding allocations, most likely the distribution of Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF), which supports knowledge exchange and will be worth £250 million a year by 2020-21.
However, Hamish McAlpine, head of knowledge exchange data and evidence at Research England, which has been tasked with developing the KEF, warned against rushing to introduce a funding link when he spoke at a conference organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum.
“Due to the timescales we operate to…it would be nearly impossible to make a link to funding for the 2019-20 year,” he said. “I think it would be very imprudent.”
“An appropriate link to funding…could take many forms and doesn’t necessarily mean replacing the current method of allocation for Higher Education Institute Funding,” he later explained. “[But] we also need to consider that Research England were asked to design a KEF the whole of the UK could participate in, if they wished, whilst we only have funding powers in England.
“There are therefore discussions to be had with other funding councils and executive bodies.”
Although the KEF is expected to be largely based on metrics, rather than peer review, Dr McAlpine warned that these were not up to the job of measuring every required aspect of knowledge transfer.
The assessment will likely be split into “six or seven perspectives” he explained, such as commercialisation, the role played between universities and their local regions, partnerships with business, partnerships with the public and third sectors.
“Some of these areas are better served by metrics than others – and indeed some are easier to measure than others,” said Dr McAlpine. “[For] local community and public engagement in particular, I am not comfortable the metrics in those areas are frankly good enough to stand alongside the metrics we have developed elsewhere.”
A technical advisory group, chaired by Trevor McMillan, vice-chancellor of Keele University, has been tasked with drawing up the KEF metrics. At the conference, both Dr McAlpine and Professor McMillan stressed that the exact details of the metrics were yet to be decided.
The different areas of assessment under the KEF are unlikely to be weighted, Dr McAlpine added. “Indeed we may not be able to aggregate across them,” he added. “It would arguably make more sense to look at each perspective individually than to aggregate and give a score.”
He also hinted that a national survey “could be an option” for use in future KEF cycles, but that the first assessment will have to rely on pre-existing data because of the time restraints in place.
Plans for the KEF are due to be subject to consultation.