Will the KEF tempt v-cs to give peas a chance?

Knowledge exchange sits low on academia’s menu, overshadowed by meatier mains, but could the assessment of universities’ third-stream activities tempt some to make it a signature dish?

January 25, 2018
Morris dancers eat fish and chips
Source: Alamy

Priorities exist everywhere. Take fish and chips – the former matters more than the latter, don’t you agree? Even if not, you surely won’t dispute that mushy peas come in a distant third place.

For universities, the holy trinity is research, teaching and knowledge exchange (sometimes described uninvitingly as “third-stream activity”, which gives you a sense of its place in the pecking order).

Research has long held pole position both for upper-echelon universities and for academics, with career success typically hingeing on research prowess to a much greater degree than on proficiency in teaching.

This is still largely true, but things are slowly changing, and there are now teaching-track career structures in place in many universities to try to redress the balance.

This has been encouraged in England by the shift away from funding coming primarily from the state, towards students paying the bulk of universities’ bills with their tuition fees.

For the same reasons – and associated concern about value for money – other mechanisms have been introduced to encourage the prioritisation of teaching.

An organisation such as the Higher Education Academy, with its well-subscribed teaching fellowship scheme, is one example that has grown from its UK base to gain traction overseas.

Another is the teaching excellence framework, which has undeniably lifted teaching up the priority list, providing some counter-balance to the dominance of the research excellence framework.

Which brings us to our cover story this week, and the mushy peas of higher education: knowledge exchange, which may be about to get a yardstick of its own.

The details of how the knowledge exchange framework  would be formed are yet to be determined – if, indeed, the idea continues to hold sway under the new minister, Sam Gyimah.

It is possible that as a late-period – some would say stale – Jo Johnson idea, the KEF will be deprioritised, but it’s also true that there is renewed political interest in developing a coherent industrial strategy to counter poor productivity levels in the UK, and the KEF plays to that agenda.

In any case, the consultation on KEF metrics is well under way (it ends on 30 January), and the intention, as things stand, is to use the framework to determine allocations of the not-insignificant Higher Education Innovation Fund (set to total £250 million a year by 2020‑21).

In our cover story, we look at the potential building blocks of the KEF and ask experts to weigh up the options; assess what other countries are doing; and consider the potential pitfalls of yet another framework of this sort – not least the danger of relying on metrics in isolation (something that has been explored and debated rigorously in the case of both the TEF and the REF).

As one would expect, the lessons for this construction phase of the KEF from the evolution of the existing frameworks are not lost on those tasked with developing the early plans.

Richard Jones, professor of physics at the University of Sheffield and chair of the KEF technical advisory group, is explicit not only about the danger of selecting “bad metrics”, but also of designing a system that academics (whom he describes as “very creative individuals”) could game. Plus ça change.

While we await the detailed blueprint, the wider question of how the KEF might alter priorities in higher education is addressed by Graham Galbraith, the vice-chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.

Ultimately, he argues, this comes down to what universities are for: should any university value its knowledge exchange activities on a par with its research and teaching?

His own view is that, in an age of REF, TEF and KEF, universities should not be aiming to excel in all three, but that “two out of three seems reasonable, at least for the larger institutions”.

The question for university leaders, Galbraith says, is which two? For those with the research muscle, the REF, on which more than £1 billion a year in research funding rides, remains the catch of the day, while it’s hard to see teaching being relegated to bottom feeder by any university in today’s environment.

So the real question, perhaps, is, will anyone will be ordering chips and mushy peas?

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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