How will the KEF affect me?

How will the KEF affect me?

24 May 2019

What do researchers and managers need to do to prepare for the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF)? Keep calm and carry on, suggests Hamish McAlpine, head of knowledge exchange data and evidence at Research England.

Exasperated cries of “REF, TEF, and now KEF?” seemed to appear all over my Twitter timeline after universities minister at the time Jo Johnson announced the KEF in October 2017. But just because this three letter acronym rhymes with the other two, it doesn’t mean that the framework for knowledge exchange is trying to achieve the same things as the others, or is doing so in the same way. Here I set out some of the rationale behind the KEF, and give my opinion on what you should do to become ‘KEFable’ (spoiler alert: Nothing. And please, never, ever use the word KEFable again, thanks).

Finding a new gear

First, the KEF must be seen in its funding and policy context, including the challenges set out in the government’s Industrial Strategy and the target to raise R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. Universities are rightly seen as essential players in helping to achieve these aims, tackling pressing societal issues around, for example, clean growth and healthy ageing.

I also see the KEF as an opportunity to counter the prevailing narrative about the benefits and value for money that higher education provides. Johnson’s speech introducing the KEF talked about the sector “finding a new gear”. I’d like to think that is more about going from fourth to fifth, rather than nervously slipping into first and stalling. This already-strong performance can be seen in consistently strong increases in KE activity reported in the HE-BCI survey.

Research England already supports and rewards these activities, with funding for knowledge exchange through our Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) increasing by £50 million to £210m a year. To put it bluntly, with more (public) money comes an increased need for accountability and visibility.

Using metrics

Second, while the UK leads the way in having a mature approach to knowledge exchange (and particularly on the understanding of the concept of ‘exchange’ rather than ‘transfer’) we recognise that as a concept, the ‘third mission’ hasn’t been around as long as research and teaching.

I don’t wish the framework to be performative in the sense that it should weight or value certain types of knowledge exchange above others, or drive behaviours of individuals or institutions in unhelpful directions, particularly when that direction is not aligned with the university's mission or strategy. So what, then, are we proposing?

Clustering universities

At Research England, we are proposing that the KEF is an England-only, annual, institutional-level, largely metrics-driven exercise (although we continue to work closely with funders in the devolved nations). Its main purpose is to allow universities to understand, question and ultimately improve their own performance, while also adding to the information available to businesses and other users of the knowledge generated in universities. Trying to ensure fair and meaningful comparison, and to present that in a useful way, has therefore been a major design consideration.

Indeed, with the diversity of English universities, any attempt to compare the knowledge exchange performance of, say, the Royal Northern College of Music with the Institute for Cancer Research is unlikely to yield anything of much use.

To this end, we have clustered universities into peer groups, based on their assets and capabilities to undertake different types of knowledge exchange, taking into account a wide range of factors, from academic disciplinary mix, student body make-up and research income. Performance will then be displayed with respect to the cluster average performance, rather than the whole sector.

We are proposing to measure activities in seven broad perspectives: intellectual property and commercialisation; public and community engagement; working with businesses and the public and third sectors; and so on. Underneath each of these perspectives are several metrics and/or narrative, where metrics are not yet well-developed enough to be useful.

Next steps

With these points in mind, what are the practical steps that you need to take to prepare for the KEF?

Mostly, keep on doing what you are doing. The KEF should not be viewed as a performative device to force you to do anything that an engaged, sensible, autonomous academic would not ordinarily do. Nor should it add any significant monitoring or reporting burden, with all the proposed metrics already gathered through existing statutory or other financial returns.

I hope that, as it develops, it becomes an increasingly useful way to raise the profile of (and potentially recognition for) knowledge exchange activities. Even before the consultation launched, we saw it stimulate conversations, such as we know we’re doing great work, but are we capturing it properly? This can only be a good thing in my book.

And another thing that I hope the KEF will do is shine a light on areas that aren’t well represented at present, or where conceptual frameworks of ‘what good looks like’ aren’t fully developed. Topics of interest for future iterations include measuring policy impact, equality diversity and inclusion in enterprise and entrepreneurship (where evidence on the underrepresentation of female spin-out founders makes for grim reading), and evolving our understanding of how to capture and describe universities’ impact in their local areas.

We at Research England do not pretend to have the expert knowledge to answer all these questions on our own. So perhaps I should expand my ‘keep doing what you’re doing’ statement slightly. Keep doing what you’re doing, but engage constructively with us on how we can better capture or represent what you’re doing in the KEF. The power of this collaborative approach is already being demonstrated in abundance through our engagement with 21 universities in the pilot KEF workshops.

As the posters (or mugs, keyrings and fridge magnets) say: keep calm and carry on—but talk to us as you do so. I believe the KEF will be a driver for sharing good practice and an important tool in making the case for knowledge exchange. Let’s work together to make sure that it is a blessing not a burden.