The Knowledge Exchange concordat is coming

Two key consultations on the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) have now closed, and we await the outcomes regarding what, if anything, might change.

The latest consultation led by Universities UK, on the Knowledge Exchange Concordat, aims to give universities clarity of mission, and give partners an accurate representation of the approach that individual universities are taking to knowledge exchange (KE). It should ensure that clear indicators of their approaches to performance improvement are provided and give governing bodies, and government, broad confidence in the activity that is taking place in universities. Overall it will also encourage collaboration between universities.

The final version of the KE Concordat will be confirmed in the autumn but, in the meantime, there is an opportunity to explore, digest and prepare for the impact of developing an institutional self-evaluation and accompanying action plan.

KEF identity crisis

Knowledge Exchange has been growing in scope for a number of years and activities well beyond the traditional Technology Transfer are now included.

The purpose of the KEF is to provide publicly available information about universities’ KE activities, provide universities with new tools to understand, benchmark and improve individual performance, and give businesses and other collaborators more information on universities’ individual strengths in KE.

As a knowledge exchange professional, when KEF was first announced my initial response was positive. KEF is the first opportunity of its kind for the KE profession to raise the profile of their activity beyond their own institutions and the government.

As I promoted the KEF across my own institution, the University of Derby, what became apparent was the potential for an identity crisis for our professional support staff if the message wasn’t shared sensitively. Colleagues in employability teams, research development, student enterprise and business support teams may not immediately identify as KE professionals, but much of the work they undertake, why and how they undertake it will be articulated in the KE Concordat self-evaluation.

Be it in a research intensive or a teaching intensive university, KE has often been the ‘bolt-on’ activity, but with KEF in place and guidance from the Concordat consultation, KE could soon be propelled from ‘third mission’ = ‘third place’ to an equal footing with teaching and research.

Asking for directions

The KE Concordat must set out not only what an institution is good at and how it will work to improve, but also what the institution is good for. Institutions must not treat the enablers described under the principles of the KE Concordat as a shopping list to follow, but ensure they have a strong sense of identity in their particular area of KE. Otherwise much of the KE Concordat will read like a service level agreement to customers as opposed to ensuring it fulfils its aim of providing clarity of mission to staff and students.

There are areas which still require clarification. How will the KE Concordat encourage collaboration between universities? Particularly when the principles appear to focus on non-academic beneficiaries. The metrics are currently the focus of a good KEF outcome, but what role will the KE Concordat play within the KEF assessment exercise? How does an institution’s KE Concordat and HEIF Strategy connect? And what, if any, impact might the KE Concordat self-evaluation and action plan have on the allocation of HEIF funding?

Of particular interest to me is the role of non-academic staff in the development of the KE Concordat self-evaluation, which seems to be more explicit than in the REF and TEF. Here, there are two potential implications. Firstly, that change driven as a result of the KE Concordat should be undertaken in partnership with our academic colleagues. Secondly, what structural changes might take place to better enable an institution to respond to the opportunities KEF presents?

Finding the way

As the seven perspectives of KEF predominantly use income from a defined set of activities as a proxy for knowledge exchange, this reminds me of the adage ‘not everything that counts can be counted’, and I am mindful that targets can drive behaviour. A branch of KE which affects policy and practice has the potential risk of becoming hidden within REF impact case studies or driven by influences external to the KEF.

I therefore hope that the KE Concordat, in synergy with the Civic University Agreement, will ensure that excellent and mutually beneficial knowledge exchange can happen where traditionally knowledge, but not money, has exchanged. This is particularly relevant within public sector, third sectors and some disciplines, such as arts and culture.

For many institutions the KE Concordat has the potential to act as a ‘road map’ for growth and diversification of activity, supporting institutions to better link their KE activity to their core strategy.

Get the fundamentals contained within the Concordat right and the metrics should naturally follow, offering a platform from which a portfolio of income streams and financial resilience can naturally flourish. With rising debt in the sector, uncertainty in relation to tuition fees and student numbers following the Augar review, this is crucial for many institutions.

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