KEF: the missing HE accountability link, or an unnecessary distraction?

At Bournemouth University, we were excited when Jo Johnson announced the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), “the third leg of the HE stool”, looking at knowledge exchange, as well as engagement with business, industry and the wider world.

We were encouraged by the statement that “public attention often focuses on technology transfer, intellectual property (IP) licensing and high-tech spin-outs, but these are far from the only way universities contribute to innovation and growth.” He promised “a comprehensive range of measures of impact from collaboration and knowledge exchange”.

For us at BU, we believe that this engagement with practice, with industry, employers and other organisations in our region (and more widely), is a vital part of what a university should be doing to contribute to society. But it is more than that – the key word is “exchange” – we strongly believe that the exchange of knowledge and information helps the economy and society, but it also informs education and delivers better outcomes for students, as well as informing research. At BU, we call this Fusion, and it is at the heart of our vision.

A missed opportunity

So imagine our disappointment when the KEF metrics consultation was launched. Far from being a wide-ranging framework to review the contribution that universities make to society through engagement and sharing knowledge, it appears that the KEF is likely to focus on intellectual property and its commercialisation, on enabling league table comparisons of institutions, and on perpetuating a method of distributing future investment based on past financial performance in these areas.

Of course, intellectual property and its commercialisation are important elements of knowledge exchange – having a significant impact on the economy and being closely linked to the industrial strategy. But, if this is all the KEF is, it is a missed opportunity.

The announcement of the KEF was greeted with gloom in some quarters; another bureaucratic exercise that adds no value to the sector; another distraction from the important business of delivering on the sector’s core purposes. At BU we did not believe that this was true of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), and we did not expect it to be true of the KEF either – at least until we read the consultation materials. It doesn’t need to be this way.

A better way

We argued when the TEF was still in its early stages (and since) that it should be structured more like the REF – that it should not be solely metrics-based, and that it should not seek to boil everything down to a single crude award. The provider submission has gone a long way towards meeting the first point – the formal review will need to think about the second.

We also believe that subject-level TEF will provide much more useful information to applicants, employers, industry and professional bodies and other stakeholders.  Provided, of course, that it is implemented in a practicable way (we prefer model A so far).

Our proposal for the KEF is that the best features of the REF and the TEF are combined, to create a framework that assesses and celebrates knowledge exchange in a way that really demonstrates engagement with industry and practice, as well as a wider contribution to society. We propose a KEF that:

  1. Is carried out at a discipline level (we also think it would make far more sense (and save wasted effort) to have the same set of discipline definitions for REF. TEF and KEF, instead of three different, overlapping sets).
  2. Uses metrics that are benchmarked (like the TEF) to account for a range of factors. For the KEF, this should include local economic factors, size and scale, maturity and strategic priorities.
  3. Is built with metrics that cover the full range of knowledge exchange activities, for instance; public engagement, engagement with industry in education as well as research, students and staff with professional qualifications, students on placements, graduate outcomes in terms of self-employment and enterprise, professional accreditation of programmes. The TEF should also use a wider range of metrics than it currently does – and may be able to do so at subject level.
  4. Includes qualitative assessment as well as metrics, such as written submissions and case studies (to borrow from both the TEF and the REF).

Getting real

Of course, not all of the metrics that we propose would work for all disciplines. But that doesn’t matter because we believe that there is far more value in a discipline-based approach than an institutional one. Those for whom this information is useful – businesses looking to invest or engage with institutions on knowledge exchange activities, local authorities and LEPs assessing the contribution of their local institution when considering their local priorities and the industrial strategy, will all be far more interested in the activity in a few particular disciplines than the overall situation. Why would a business interested in digital innovation be interested in income from patents related to drug development?

One of the often-repeated strengths of the REF is that it allows excellence to be highlighted and celebrated (and funded) wherever it is found. The KEF could do the same for knowledge exchange. But not without a much broader view of knowledge exchange, and a much wider, more meaningful, and fairer assessment. The definition phase for the KEF seems to have been skipped in a rush towards more metrics – we hope that it will be reconsidered.

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