KEF2 fast 2 furious

What should we make of the Knowledge Exchange Framework?

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

Avid Wonkhe readers will remember the analysis of KEF2 we put out in May.

For the more casual KEF fan a brief reminder that KEF is the sector-wide exercise to capture the quality of knowledge exchange taking place across universities in England. KEF uses existing data to cluster universities on their engagement in using their research to impact the economy and society.

This year’s exercise was the first to be carried out under Research England’s new methodology. KEF2 largely resembles the KEF of old with some tweaks to metrics, the presentation of data, and the timeframe for measuring impact. The sum of these changes provides a more rounded view of universities knowledge exchange activity without deviating wildly from a trusted and respected methodology.

KEF doesn’t lend itself to, and Wonkhe does not (car parking aside) indulge in, compiling league tables. KEF is technically sophisticated in its construction but in essence draws on existing data, groups universities with similar providers, and points toward areas of genuine institutional strength and impact. There is surely a lesson for anyone compiling metrics for funding or regulatory purposes in that KEF is light touch, well understood, and actually measures the things it says it will.

Dash for growth

Research England has provided some helpful KEF dashboards. The trade-off of having a nuanced approach to understanding the performance of individual providers is that it abrogates drawing thematic judgements on knowledge exchange activity across the whole country. However, English universities are doing a lot of work in this area, and taken in conjunction with REF impact case studies, it’s clear that universities are deeply invested in the success of their places and partners.

For KEF Research England clusters universities within groups of comparable institutions. For example, on average specialist arts institutions (think of the Royal Academy of Music or Royal College of Art) are particularly engaged with local growth and regeneration but less engaged in working with business. At the other end of the spectrum very large and very research intensive universities (King’s College London, Newcastle University, and the like) are very highly engaged with business and less so with graduate start-ups.

It would be possible to use the source data to rank providers by type and intensity of engagement, but this would miss the point. The most interesting debate here is whether it is incumbent on every institution, or even desirable, to be pushing at multiple dimensions of knowledge exchange all at once. This is to say having providers within a country as small as England focus on different but complementary strengths is a good thing.

Diversity of mission

For example, it’s entirely sensible that some providers will devote close to 100 per cent of their energies to graduate start ups and professional development while some are working much more closely with business. These differences need not be a basis of competition but a fundamental consideration of how to bring the complementary strengths of universities to bear on society and the economy.

Used wisely this iteration of KEF results should not be an exercise for universities to think about how they broaden their impact across all areas. It should be a call to look at how universities deepen their impact within areas they already excel, work with others with complementary skills be that regionally or by cluster, and in turn develop the programmes, projects, and partnerships, which make an even bigger difference to society and the economy.

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