What could KEF achieve for universities and knowledge exchange staff?

The launch of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) consultation brings renewed focus on the area of university-business interactions, also known as knowledge exchange, specifically how successful KE is assessed and value of public investment assured. The KEF is an institutional level appraisal of activity but institutions are nothing without the individuals that work for them.

PraxisAuril represents a particular cohort of university staff who work with academics and external audiences of different kinds, using a variety of engagement models for consultancy, collaboration and commercialisation. We refer to our members as KE professionals and the KEF relates directly to how they are resourced, organised and motivated.

We welcome KEF as an opportunity to engage the wider world in discussions about how universities work with businesses of all kinds; for the benefit of businesses, students and researchers. Already, discussions about the KEF Concordat and metrics exercise have enabled us to emphasise the diversity and breadth of knowledge exchange activities, which enable a great deal of social and economic impact. They have also helped us – as a professional training organisation – to raise the profile of the staff and structures that make for successful KE projects; engaging everyone from researchers to university leaders in the KE agenda. The KEF will require us to further examine the ways we facilitate KE and to think about innovative support modes and models. It is a fundamental part of our mission to be involved in such thinking with and on behalf of our membership.

My KEF wishlist

So what could a successful KEF deliver? I think it should do four things.

  • Provide a way for universities to set their KE strategy by understanding performance compared to a relevant peer group. This is what the cluster model helpfully sets out to achieve with its emphasis on one size of regulation not fitting all, nor favouring a particular mode of KE. Universities should be supported to play to their KE strengths but also supported to be ambitious in thinking about how to deploy resources, which are neither fixed nor unlimited year-on-year. Defining a KE focus and benchmarking performance against other institutions that are similar will provide a lens for such analysis.
  • Change the narrative around knowledge exchange. HE-BCI data presented as a national picture of KE activity can lead to assumptions about a sector which is actually very diverse in terms of research strengths, KE missions, resources and activities. There is an important message about choice based on considerations of funding, risk appetite, skills and support. Headline figures for KE tend to focus on levels of patenting, but academics who patent ideas also engaging with business in many other ways.

 

“Whilst we are able to measure … partnerships in terms of agreements signed or income received, what we can’t measure are the numerous conversations our academic colleagues have with companies and the sparks that these conversations may ignite within their own research.” – Angela Kukula, PraxisAuril Chair

Effective KE is about integration across the breadth of KE activity and how value is created at each point. This is inextricably linked with the personal choices of researchers themselves. Institutional incentives and policies need to be carefully designed to allow those choices to flourish. And KE does not concern just a KE “office” or team – but overlaps with research managers and other business units within a university. These dependencies are often ignored

  • Give the public, funders, businesses, investors, and the government confidence that universities are committed to engaging in meaningful economic and social impact. PraxisAuril hopes that KEF will help to address the often poor image of UK knowledge exchange (and of commercialisation specifically – a topic addressed recently by David Gann and Nick Jennings in the Guardian). Income to universities from knowledge exchange reached £4.5bn in 2015-16, the 2014 REF generated 6,000+ impact case studies, and Oxford Economics (for UUK) has estimated the future benefits of university R&D at around £30 billion. But these numbers do not seem to provide the confidence that the government (in particular) seeks; rather than celebrating success there is more frequently concern over the number of spin-outs created each year by a minority of HEIs of a particular type. So we clearly do need to find new numbers and another way of assessing performance.
  • Identify environmental and demand-side data that can put university KE performance in context, to help us all to understand where there is a need to improve performance overall as well as in specific KE activities – for example, to drive SME engagement or increase spin-out investment. Tomas Ulrichsen’s cluster report for Research England takes LEPs as an example of how economic conditions affect HEIs even within clusters, but there are other data (e.g. KTP awards, SME intensity or venture capital investment) that could also be mapped onto the clusters.

My apples are orangier than yours

The trouble with knowledge exchange is that it really does vary from place to place and from HEI to HEI. Furthermore, by no means is all of the value measurable – certainly not in a UK-wide framework that necessarily has to make tough decisions to ensure the metrics model is “fair”. This is why PraxisAuril is also developing methods for assessing knowledge exchange at the individual and organisational level. his is something that we’ve always done – our mission is to provide a high-quality training programme that equips (both new and more experienced) KE professionals with the right skills for the job, as well as a professional network that really values sharing good practice.

We’re building on that work by more actively supporting the Registered Technology Transfer Practitioner (RTTP) qualification, which provides internationally recognised levels of achievement in KE. This follows the example of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM, USA) and the Association of European Science and Technology Professionals (ASTP-Proton, pan-European) and reaffirms that the UK is part of an international KE community.

At the same time, we’re piloting a peer-to-peer office review programme which will offer KE directors a way of assessing their office’s current level of KE maturity in a number of categories (taken from HE-BCI) and will track progress over time. It’s a self-assessment initially but could be extended to third-party review and recommendations. It’s meant to be done in a supportive environment, respectful of local conditions and resources. I can see how this offering, in particular, would fit well alongside the KEF, which is itself an institutional measure.

We also support regional groups, who may want to focus on a particular economic environmental dynamic And our Special Interest Groups are taking deeper dives into areas of technical expertise.

This activity should feed upwards and outwards, with positive benefits to individuals, teams and the knowledge exchange activities they support in and across HEIs and their partners. Implementing the KEF will not be easy – but if it provides a method for us to deepen understanding of university KE and the context in which it takes place then the effort will be worth it. University leaders are likely to consider KEF outcomes, alongside the Teaching Excellence and Research Excellence Frameworks (TEF and REF), as the combined reflection of a university’s strengths in teaching and graduate employment, research impact, regional economic importance, national standing, and international reach and reputation.

PraxisAuril will be working with members and taking the role of ‘critical friend’ with sector stakeholders to make the most of this opportunity to understand KE dynamics and dependencies in order to deliver tools that will inspire universities and encourage external partners to engage.

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