It’s time to fund KEF

Let's make knowledge exchange easier with fewer, better funds

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) captures a panoply of processes that we call knowledge exchange.

It is a light touch, data based, cluster of knowledge exchange activity producing framework which is useful in reflecting practice but less useful in telling the world about what universities are doing.

Research England has brought out its Review of knowledge exchange funding decisions and implementation plan. The document states that while there is general confidence in KEF Research England has recognised the opportunity for changes to methods, data collection, metrics, evidence and funding of knowledge exchange activity.

In looking at the basis of knowledge exchange in this way Research England has brought the debate on the funding of knowledge exchange to a head. If the problem with the KEF is that it’s not as visible as it could be, and the goal of the government is to encourage knowledge exchange activity, then funding KEF seems like the obvious solution.

The challenge is to bring together all the strands of knowledge exchange funding without overburdening the system, double counting funds, and introducing new processes to a research ecosystem which is already replete with bureaucracy.

Process, impact, KEF and REF

Knowledge exchange is an unglamorous term for a very important activity.

In short, it is the means through which ideas get out of universities into the wider world and how ideas in the wider world permeate into academia. It’s not really an activity universities do, it is more like one of the reasons they exist.

KEF sets out categories for knowledge exchange activity. This includes public engagement, research partnerships, working with business, working with the third sector, continued professional development, local growth and regeneration, and IP and commercialisation.

This differs from the impact measurements in Research Excellence Framework (REF) which is as the name suggests is an impact not a process measure.

Why KEF isn’t funded but could be

In a 2017 speech launching the KEF then science minister Jo Johnson advocated for a reform of the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF). This is funding used for knowledge exchange activities. This led to the suggestion that KEF metrics would be directly linked to the allocation of HEIF funds. HEIF is available to spend only on knowledge exchange activity but it is not allocated through KEF. It is instead allocated through a formula drawn from the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey, HESA data, and knowledge transfer partnerships with Innovate UK. Confusingly, the majority of data used for KEF is also drawn from the HE-BCI survey. There is a separate piece of work to update these metrics which is another blog for another time.

As a starting point it would be sensible to rationalise HEIF allocations and KEF measurements. Without getting into the weeds at this stage a joint data set would likely draw from an enhanced HE-BCI survey, Innovate UK income, research income, journal data, and non-credit bearing course data from the Office for Students. The most straightforward way would be either to dispense with HEIF entirely and allocate the whole pot to KEF with a strengthened self-assessment element, like in REF, or use KEF as the sole basis for HEIF allocations. This would avoid both double counting funds and reduce administrative burden.

At the moment HEIF funding can only be used for knowledge exchange activity and it has been used for activities ranging from business support to recover from Covid-19, tackling financial scams, creating use cases around 5G, and lots of projects in between. This approach could be retained but it is also worth considering additional funding where clusters of universities have engaged in shared knowledge exchange activity. There could also be a government top up fund to tackle national knowledge exchange priorities. Something like the OfS challenge fund for knowledge exchange.

Why it might not be that easy

There is also the wider question of aligning the process funding of KEF and outcome funding of REF. Impact in the REF is currently assessed through the submission of case studies based on the FTE of staff submitted within a unit. Impact accounts for 25 per cent on the overall outcome and it is assessed against reach and significance.

There are two sides to this argument. On the one hand I see the benefit of KEF measuring all knowledge exchange activity and funding it appropriately. To avoid double counting the KEF result could account for the impact measurement in REF. This would not reduce bureaucracy, it would simply move it, but it would change the timing of data collection and place continued focus on knowledge exchange over a longer time period.

On the other hand accounting for impact as 25 per cent of overall outcomes is a significant measure, it is well understood, and has a direct link to impact through research. One of the benefits of KEF is that it has a low administrative burden and blending the systems may just add confusion.

There is also business QR funding which is based on income from industry, commerce, and public corporations, which would need to be considered probably separate to this debate

Instead, it is perhaps more useful to consider a set of criteria for the allocation of funding across all streams related to knowledge exchange. This would likely be

  • Does funding reward the breadth of knowledge exchange activity taking place?
  • Is it easy to administer and verify through the use of publicly available data?
  • Does it allow for sufficient comparison between similar institutions while rewarding excellence wherever it may be?
  • Is the process sufficiently robust to justify the allocation of public funding?

These criteria expose clear trade offs between encouraging new activity and rewarding ongoing work. Ensuring there is robust allocation of funds and not over-burdening the system. And ensuring that a system is well understood by universities while delivering value to the public.

The discussion in the coming years is not easy but if an agreed principle is that knowledge exchange activity is worthwhile and it should be funded, encouraged, and rewarded, then the debate should be about how mechanisms can work together, be consolidated, or new mechanisms invented, to support this objective.

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