One extreme to the other and everything in-between

Analysis for Hefce finds a spectrum of opinions on knowledge transfer's benefits. Hannah Fearn writes

March 11, 2010

Half of the academics involved in blue-skies research believe that universities have gone "too far" in their efforts to meet the needs of industry, "to the detriment of their core teaching and research roles".

A study for the Higher Education Funding Council for England asks whether UK scholars believe knowledge exchange is beneficial or damaging to their work. It finds that there is considerable difference of opinion within the academy.

Half of those questioned say that too much emphasis on the commercial application of research "leads to a decline of academic standards". A similar proportion of blue-skies researchers believe universities have gone "too far" down the business road.

Yet almost two-thirds of respondents say that knowledge exchange can have a positive impact on research, and just over half think that it can benefit teaching.

In addition, and despite their general misgivings, more than a third of blue-skies researchers say that knowledge exchange offers "new insights into their work".

The report, Synergies and trade-offs between research, teaching and knowledge exchange, says that academics in the social sciences and humanities are more likely to note the positive impact of third-stream activity on teaching, while those working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) see the greatest benefits in research.

"This is confirmed by the motivations of academics in the humanities, who are much more likely than those in STEM subjects to engage in knowledge exchange to gain knowledge about practical problems useful for teaching," the report says.

Students taught by academics involved in knowledge transfer are likely to be more employable than their peers, it claims.

The study also says that leading research-intensive universities report that knowledge-exchange work tends to improve research outputs.

There is still a perception among scholars that taking non-academic sabbaticals damages their university careers, the report warns. This belief became more entrenched between 1995 and 2008, it adds.

It concludes that further research is needed to assess the positive and negative effects of knowledge exchange on academic endeavour.

And in a warning to universities, it says that the possible loss of the indirect benefits to teaching and research must be considered before knowledge-transfer work is cut.

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