We stand at a crucial point in time as the UK’s place shifts in the world where the imperative for universities and higher education providers to genuinely explore, engage and exchange knowledge with their different communities and users has never been greater.
Yet we miss a fundamental component in this developing knowledge exchange arena if as much careful consideration is not paid to the links with teaching as to the well-rehearsed links to research.
With the introduction of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) attention is rightly focusing on the vast amounts of good work that take place in this “third space” of higher education activity. It’s why we at GuildHE welcome the KEF and have been working with UUK to consult with the sector on the Knowledge Exchange Concordat.
But much of the recent focus has been on the knowledge exchange activity that flows (and only flows) from research. For example, the clusters of institutions developed for the KEF are based upon research activity and strengths; publishing 4* journal articles does not always lead to real-world benefit.
For that reason, it’s not so surprising that so little attention has been paid to the knowledge exchange elements of teaching. Part of the argument for not doing so is that teaching only benefits the student. This is not true. The act of teaching can benefit the teacher as much as the student – true teaching and learning forms a blend where all parties concerned embark on a knowledge journey together. It is, however, hard to develop and implement simple metrics that capture this form of knowledge exchange: how can you capture what a practitioner learns and takes back to their workplace from carrying out a guest lecture? Yet we know there is benefit in this exchange – HEFCE’s 2017 study Students: Experience, engagement and communities demonstrates this.
GuildHE’s report on practitioner-informed learning provides some good examples of how this “exchange” works both ways. A case study from Arts University Bournemouth shows how a lecturer returned to practice and noticed “his work was ‘slicker’ and ‘more in tune’ with the principles behind the fundamentals of animation, character and performance”. It lead to Aardman and the university exploring the concept of an ‘animator swap’ to further this two-way knowledge exchange to improve both creative practice and teaching.
The example above is unlikely to be captured in the KEF unless there is an economic outcome at some stage. Yet it is becoming increasingly important in the world of the “left-behind” rhetoric when you use knowledge exchange as a lens through which to view the performance of a higher education provider. Knowledge exchange is arguably one of the strongest ways that universities and colleges can connect with businesses, communities and wider society. It sits between research and teaching and must draw on the strengths of both and goes beyond a simple economic transaction.
So it’s not surprising that knowledge exchange is one of the major shared policy interests between the Office for Students and UKRI as their Collaboration Agreement make this clear.
But a lot of the current focus on knowledge exchange is not taking as much account of this shared priority as it should. The KEF metrics exercise is largely based around the Higher Education Business Community Interaction Survey which does not include KE activity developed from a teaching viewpoint.
That said, the Knowledge Exchange Concordat (KEC) is broader because it looks at principles and practices rather than measurement. The KEC should offer a way to capture the importance of teaching in knowledge exchange.
Sections within the proposals already start to look at the fusion between staff and student. Principle 1 focusses on Mission and emphasises that this needs to be clear for both staff and students, with a suggestion that providing clear routes for students to engage with enterprise and entrepreneurship could be one way to do this. In many institutions, this sort of exposure is likely to be lived out through teaching, especially those that are industry-focused. For example, LIPA includes core modules on how to run your own business because many of their graduates go on to have successful freelance careers in the creative arts.
In May, Andrew Basu-McGowan at NCUB blogged that “if the Concordat does not live up to the diversity of KE activity to its fullest and adopts narrower tenets based around traditional tech transfer, an opportunity will be missed.” Paul Manners at NCCPE also pointed to how the Concordat should be developed to reflect the importance of place and inequality, which KE has a fundamental role in addressing.
Both are incredibly important elements for many small and specialist institutions: not considering the teaching/knowledge exchange mix and how this relates to place would be such a missed opportunity (an example in practitioner-informed learning report from York St John University on they teacher-training into the local community illustrates this nicely).
The teaching elements of knowledge exchange do not necessarily lend themselves to easy measurement. But this does not mean that we should avoid considering them altogether. Rather we should do the opposite.
What should we do?
We need to think differently. Some forms of knowledge exchange are easier to capture, such as patent registrations; some such as public and community engagement are more difficult. Yet Research England has not shied away from thinking about how to do so – indeed, part of the KEF pilots programme has involved such work.
We should take a similar approach to think about the teaching elements of knowledge exchange. The development of a Concordat that looks at both research and teaching knowledge exchange provides a great opportunity to reimagine that conversation. And perhaps will help us develop stronger, beneficial relationships with our communities.