Now is the time for knowledge exchange

In delaying KEF and easing HEIF requirements, Research England hopes to give the sector chance to support industry and society. Hamish McAlpine explains the thinking behind the decisions.

I expect last week’s announcement that Research England are pushing back the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) deadline and re-timetabling other knowledge exchange (KE) work came as little surprise to most, following similar announcements on the REF and TEF.

In summary, we’ve significantly extended the deadline for English HEIs to submit narrative statements for the KEF, moving from May to October, and made other changes aimed at easing accountability requirements for KE funding through our Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF).

Importantly, though, we will still publish updated policies and priorities for HEIF this May, and allocations will be made as usual later this year. We’re also making good on the commitment for an extra £25m for HEIF from 2020/21, following the substantial increases made each year since 2017.

Why we do what we do

These are unprecedented times for universities and funders alike, and with these changes, we’ve tried not just to relieve immediate pressures, but to take a holistic view of our KE activities, as well as working with colleagues across RE and UKRI (including on REF), and the Office for Students. But whilst we hope that this is a helpful announcement in the short- to medium-term, I want to reinforce two things.

We are still fully committed to the KEF. We heard through the consultation and pilot that many in the sector welcomed the KEF (and the forthcoming KE concordat) as an opportunity to ensure knowledge exchange activities have parity of esteem with research and teaching. And in this current crisis, the value of universities has never been more visible, with many doing remarkable things in the response to Covid-19. Twitter is buzzing with examples of research being bought to bear to develop new treatments and tests, and of universities working night and day to support their students. But there are just as many examples of knowledge exchange. These efforts deserve to be recognised, and the KEF (particularly through the narratives statements) will allow some of these remarkable efforts to be collected and made visible in a structured, coordinated way.

The potential for KE during Covid-19

There are of course many immediate concerns in the sector regarding the impact of this crisis on staff and students, not to mention longer-term financial stability and sustainability of institutions themselves. And I can assure you that there is not a single person in Research England that isn’t thinking about how we can support the sector through this crisis. But let’s not forget that knowledge exchange is, by its very definition, about working with external partners for economic and societal benefit. So whilst the measures announced today will help universities, they are really about helping universities to help their myriad external partners (from big businesses, to the public sector and community groups and charities) many of whom are experiencing pressures and challenges that are just as acute as any in the HE sector. Making our funding as flexible as possible will help, and I urge universities to take advantage of this flexibility to think how best they can support these partnerships, especially where it’s not possible to progress planned activities.

Examples could include working directly with local businesses through offering expertise or equipment, particularly where a business has identified an opportunity for a new product or service that could help the crisis response. Or perhaps helping community groups stay connected through technology, or artists to find new ways of sharing their work with the public. Institutions could also look at how the processes to provide support to start-ups or spin-offs could be accelerated or adapted, to ensure good ideas don’t fail for want of early-stage seed funding. I would also hope that innovative or successful examples of such support could be shared throughout the sector, and I’m sure that organisations like PraxisAuril and the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) could help to facilitate this.

There are still many unknowns about the current crisis and the nature of our recovery from it, but when it does ease (and whatever new normal we emerge into), let’s all make sure we’re in the best possible position to carry on the good work – rebuilding existing partnerships, forging new ones, and proving once and for all that knowledge exchange isn’t the “third mission” but an integral part of how universities demonstrate the huge value they bring to society.

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