The UK’s universities are amongst its strongest institutions, with international reputations for teaching and research. In many areas of the country, they are also amongst the biggest economic actors.
Given the serious economic and social problems that the UK faces, universities have an obligation to contribute to overcoming these difficulties. Their teaching and research missions make important contributions to this in themselves, but in addition to this, universities have a duty to focus on wider dimensions of knowledge exchange with their wider communities – an obligation that has been eagerly and creatively embraced by many institutions.
Aspirations for KEF
Given that we have a Research Excellence Framework (REF) to assess research, and a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to assess teaching and student outcomes, it’s perhaps logical to have a framework to shine a spotlight on universities’ knowledge exchange activities too. Yet the announcement of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) by then-universities minister Jo Johnson in October 2017 wasn’t met with universal approbation across the sector. Instead, there was concern that knowledge exchange might be defined too narrowly, and that there might be an inappropriate focus on a few metrics as indicators.
As someone conscious of these risks, yet with a deep conviction about the importance of the knowledge exchange mission of universities, I was pleased to be asked to chair the Technical Advisory Group, set up to advise Research England on the implementation of KEF.
From my perspective, KEF should have multiple goals. First, it should highlight the excellent knowledge exchange practices that can be found across the sector, and the outstanding ways HE institutions contribute – for example in generating national and regional economic growth and supporting their local communities.
Second, it should help university managers to focus on this important part of a university’s mission, and highlight the importance of knowledge exchange to staff throughout the institution. It should prompt reflection within university leadership teams about how the particular emphases of their knowledge exchange activities should best reflect the particular strengths of their institution and the needs of their cities and regions. It should allow them to compare their record with those of comparable institutions, and to learn from initiatives elsewhere.
Third, it should encourage more organisations outside HE institutions – including employers, public bodies and NGOs – to work with universities, highlighting the potential benefits that come from such partnerships.
It has been a pleasure to work with a very diverse and experienced advisory group, supported by outstanding analytical work from Research England, and informed by many very helpful responses to our consultations. Our work has also benefited from the valuable insights arising from Trevor McMillan’s Knowledge Exchange Steering Group. This has resulted in a clear direction of travel for the next stage of pilots and consultations.
As the KEF evolves further, my hope is that it will recognise the diversity of the sector and the diversity of different types of knowledge exchange. It should use robust, transparent metrics where they are available and appropriate. Our work suggests that there are areas in which metrics would in principle be appropriate, but where statistics are currently not yet good enough – especially around the local and regional dimensions of innovation. The work currently being carried out by UKRI and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) should help here. Finally, not everything that matters can be measured – there will remain important aspects of knowledge exchange that can’t easily be captured in even robust metrics, and rather than being neglected as a consequence, these aspects should be captured through narrative and prioritised appropriately.
Our universities are huge assets to their cities and regions, and to the UK’s economy and society more widely. I hope the KEF will highlight the contributions they make, prompt universities to give even more support to knowledge exchange activities, and highlight to organisations that don’t currently interact with universities the potential benefits such partnerships can bring.