A new framework is born: meet KEF

Image: IKON

A new metric was announced this morning, to sit alongside the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and the Research Excellence Framework (REF). It is the centrepiece of a range of proposals designed to focus university attention on “the third leg of the HE stool” – knowledge transfer and commercial outcomes. Introducing, the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF).

Announced with little pre-briefing by Jo Johnson at the HEFCE conference today, the new metric is backed up by £40m of further Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) investment and further Science and Innovation Audits.

KEF will be led by Research England, which will take on the research and innovation activity currently carried out by HEFCE, and will work alongside the Office for Students (OfS).

In his speech, Johnson suggested these were “busy, exciting, times” for the sector, calling for it to now “step up a gear”. He cited Australia and America as two international exemplars in “blockbuster” knowledge transfer. However, he acknowledged that there were pockets of excellence throughout English HE, announcing the first four projects to secure a total of £20m funding from the £100m HEFCE Connecting Capability programme.

The building blocks of KEF largely already exist – it will draw on the work of Professor Trevor McMillan’s Knowledge Exchange Steering Group and the HEFCE HE-BCI survey. But Johnson noted that these don’t sufficiently identify or encourage high performance as they are difficult to access and unweighted. A consultation led by Research England will be the first step on the way to a new “public sector knowledge exchange framework”, involving universities and not “plonking it on the sector cold.”

Research-guru David Sweeney, currently Director (Research and Knowledge Exchange) at HEFCE and Executive Chair Designate of Research England, said this should give sector-leaders valuable new information to inform their decisions. He also pointed out that some may choose to forgo this income stream. As with TEF (at least for now) and REF, institutions are expected to choose their strategic priorities, but it seems highly likely that KEF will be required in order to access HEIF funding.

A new metric

Wonkhe understands work is already underway behind the scenes to make sure KEF accounts for different types of providers, a major concern among vice chancellors from humanities and arts-focused institutions. However, the main focus is on economic impact with repeated references to the forthcoming industrial strategy. Basic research got a nod from the minister but it is unclear yet if (and how) non-economic outcomes might feature in the “totality of impact” he wants KEF to measure.

At the conference, some concerns were also expressed about the “right balance” Johnson mentioned between HEIF and Mainstream quality-related (QR) funding, especially from institutions more reliant on specialist funding. But overall the “gear-change” metaphor he used compares favourably to the “lamentable” teaching that spurred the development of TEF. With teaching, Johnson felt the sector was not paying adequate attention, but none of the language used in the announcement today suggests that KEF is in response to serious perceived failings in the system, instead relying on a few cherry-picked statistics where the UK is slightly behind comparator nations. Indeed the tone was positively conciliatory, with Johnson talking about taking “great care, involving the sector at every point, so not to inadvertently skew behaviours”.

The consultation – again, reflecting the perceived maturity of this agenda – will be much more wide-ranging than those connected to the TEF, with a wider range of detail up for sector debate. This will include the sequencing of the scheme, with the current expectation that it will match REF and post-review TEF with a five-year cycle.

Also announced alongside KEF was an extra £18m for the Rutherford Fund in 2017/18, on top of £100m already committed. There will be 200 more significant fellowships this year, including 50 commonwealth fellowships. A relatively modest £5m will go to the British Academy in recognition of the ‘‘importance of humanities and social sciences”.  

No allowances were made for the ‘fourth leg’ of some university missions, often called ‘service learning’ in the USA. This idea “hasn’t caught on here” apparently, perhaps too associated with New Labour or the Big Society.

6 thoughts on “A new framework is born: meet KEF”

  1. David Sweeney says:

    I think the ‘balance’ comment was positive. He said:

    ‘In addition, I am asking UKRI and Research England to consider the right balance between HEIF and quality-related (QR) funding – so that as we give recognition to the vital role that universities must play in their engagement with others in the UK economy, we do not lose sight of the need to support curiosity-driven science that has no immediate commercial goals.’

    ‘We do not lose sight of the need to support curiosity-driven science’ means that as we are able to deliver on our aspiration to increase HEIF we should ‘not lose sight’ of the case for increasing QR.

  2. Alex Miles says:

    David, is there an intention to link any of this to the various Research Council Impact Accelerator Accounts?

  3. Louis Coiffait says:

    David, the reaction from many leaders I spoke to was more worried than positive, the devil – as ever – will be in the detail. And a nod to basic science research is not quite the same as accounting for all non-financial impact across disciplines, but hopefully that will feature in the Minister’s wish to “capture the totality of impact”.

  4. David Sweeney says:

    There is no blueprint already developed – otherwise why would we be consulting? No doubt Research Council colleagues within UKRI will want to engage in the discussion.

  5. sarapates2013 says:

    I would be very excited by this if there were any indication that the measures would include the economic impact created by student and graduate start-ups fostered and supported by universities. Whilst there is a clear steer from government that student/graduate startup is desirable there are no real current measures (or rewards) for this meaning it often slips off the radar as universities prioritise responding to agendas that directly impact income

  6. Chris Fellingham says:

    Could you elaborate on ‘service learning’ fourth leg – what does that mean?

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