Whether it is researchers at the University of Hull using films and music to help inform anti-slavery campaigners or the Institute of Cancer Research translating research discoveries into benefits for cancer patients, the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), the first results of which were published in March, demonstrated the invaluable contributions the UK’s higher education sector makes to our economy and society.
Indeed, the KEF has made a positive start on the road to achieving what former universities minister Jo Johnson intended it to do when he launched the idea in 2017. It has shown why public funding for knowledge exchange is important and underscored the need to keep nurturing this vital process in our universities.
But, as a new British Academy report shows, broader types of knowledge exchange that don’t just focus on some of the easier to measure outputs – such as commercialisation of new technology or intellectual property – may have a tendency to be overlooked. Drawing on a rich and diverse catalogue of case studies from across the UK, the Academy’s report shows that although knowledge exchange in the SHAPE disciplines – the social sciences, humanities and the arts – is thriving and driving significant social and economic benefits, this reality will prove difficult to sufficiently capture in the current formulation of the KEF.
Good work, unrewarded
For instance, the London School of Economics’ Care Policy and Evaluation Centre (CPEC) is a leading international research centre carrying out world-class research in social care, mental health, developmental disabilities and other health issues to inform and influence policy, practice, and theory globally. CPEC’s work on long-term care projections regularly feeds into the Office of Budgetary Responsibility’s fiscal sustainability reports and their models underpin analyses by the Treasury, the 10 Downing Street analytical unit and the Department for Health and Social Care.
In 2016 the latter commissioned CPEC researchers to independently review improvements in dementia care and support to help the government prepare its national policy framework. This is a fantastic example of where knowledge exchange can have real policy influence and impact, yet the current iteration of the KEF would not capture these vital societal benefits of this activity.
Take also the case of the Routes into Languages North-East project – a consortium of five north-eastern universities that aimed to boost the ailing take-up of languages in the region and promote working and studying abroad. Working with schools from Berwick upon Tweed through to Yarm, the group organised regional events including roadshows, masterclasses and film days, and also continues to create resources, such as careers profiles, interview guidance and course information.
Between 2007 and 2017, over 300 schools and 35000 pupils were involved in 700 events. This is crucial work – firing up language learning is of great strategic importance to the UK – but engagement with schools and colleges falls outside the scope of the current KEF.
Moving towards recognition
Based on its findings, the report notes several potential developments to the KEF that could allow it to better capture the full range and variety of knowledge exchange in all disciplines.
First, the assessment categories – called perspectives – could be considered as dynamic as the activities they measure and reviewed to ensure they best capture the diverse array of knowledge exchange that occurs. The current version of the KEF assesses knowledge exchange according to seven categories – such as local growth and regeneration, public and community engagement, and research partnerships – but to these we should consider adding three more: policy engagement and influence, engaging schools and colleges, and improving equality, diversity, and inclusion. These benefits are already well-appreciated by universities and their partners, and so capturing the information for KEF would allow for much greater visibility of how and where knowledge exchange occurs.
We are also encouraging policymakers to recognise the essential role that humanities and social sciences departments play in business, government, education and society, and urging university research managers to use future iterations of the KEF to capture SHAPE connections and collaborations with business, services and communities.
Lastly, researchers, educators and students in SHAPE subjects ought to consider their work through a knowledge exchange lens and examine how their work can benefit from different external opportunities. How can they gain recognition from maximising the exchange of knowledge from campus to the community? And how might they work more effectively with local and national businesses and services so that the mobilisation of new knowledge can be evaluated and rewarded?
The stated aims of the KEF are to “increase efficiency and effectiveness in the use of public funding for knowledge exchange”, “to further a culture of continuous improvement in universities” and to “allow universities to better understand and improve their own performance”. In this context, fine tuning the KEF so that it allows for a more comprehensive and three-dimensional picture of knowledge exchange to emerge can only benefit the KEF itself as well as the higher education sector, business and society.