On the Knowledge Exchange Framework
9 January 2019
The UK’s universities are among its strongest institutions, with international reputations for teaching and research. In many areas of the country, they are among the strongest economic actors in their cities and regions. Given the serious economic and social problems that the UK faces, I believe that universities have an obligation to contribute to overcoming these difficulties. Their teaching and research missions make important contributions to this in themselves, but in addition to this, universities have a duty to focus on wider dimensions of knowledge exchange with their wider communities - an obligation that has been eagerly and creatively embraced by many institutions.
Given that we have a Research Excellence Framework to assess research, and a Teaching Excellence Framework to assess teaching and student outcomes, it’s logical to have a framework to shine a spotlight on universities’ knowledge exchange activities. Yet the announcement of the Knowledge Exchange Framework by then-Universities Minister Jo Johnson in October 2017 was not met with universal approbation across the sector. There was concern that knowledge exchange might be defined too narrowly, and that there might be inappropriate focus on a few metrics as indicators.
As someone conscious of these risks, yet with a deep conviction about the importance of the knowledge exchange mission of universities, I was pleased to be asked to chair the Technical Advisory Group, set up to advise Research England on the implementation of the Knowledge Exchange Framework.
From my perspective, the Knowledge Exchange Framework should have multiple goals. Firstly, it should highlight the excellent knowledge exchange practise that can be found across the sector, and the outstanding ways HE institutions contribute to the nation, for example through contributing to national and regional economic growth and supporting their communities.
Secondly, it should help university managers to focus on this important part of a university’s mission, and highlight the importance of knowledge exchange to staff throughout the institutions. It should prompt reflection within university leadership teams about how the particular emphases of their knowledge exchange activities should best reflect the particular strengths of their institution and the needs of their cities and regions. It should allow them to compare their record with those of comparable institutions, and learn from initiatives elsewhere.
Thirdly, it should encourage more organisations outside institutions – including companies, public bodies and NGOs – to work with universities, highlighting the potential benefits that come from such partnerships.
It has been a pleasure to work with a very diverse and experienced advisory group, supported by outstanding analytical work from Research England, and informed by many very helpful responses to our consultations. Our work has also benefitted from the valuable insights arising from Trevor McMillan’s Knowledge Exchange Steering Group. This has resulted in a clear direction of travel for the next stage of pilots and consultations.
As the KEF evolves further, my hope is that it will recognise the diversity of the sector, and the diversity of different types of knowledge exchange. It should use robust, transparent metrics where they are available and appropriate. Our work does suggest that there are areas in which metrics would in principle be appropriate, but where statistics are currently not yet good enough – especially around the local and regional dimensions of innovation. The work currently being carried out by UK Research and Innovation and Office for National Statistics should help here. Finally, not everything that matters can be measured – there will remain important aspects of knowledge exchange that can’t easily be captured in robust metrics, and rather than being neglected as a consequence, these aspects should be captured through narrative.
Our universities are huge assets to their cities and regions, and to the UK’s economy and society more widely. I hope the KEF will highlight the contribution they make, prompt universities to give even more support to knowledge exchange activities, and highlight to organisations that don’t currently interact with universities the potential benefits such partnerships can bring.