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Does university knowledge exchange need a framework?

13 October 2017
Greg Wade

Greg Wade

Programme Manager
Universities UK

​In yesterday's speech to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) conference, the universities minister Jo Johnson unveiled plans to develop a "Knowledge Exchange Framework", to compare how effective universities are at business engagement and knowledge exchange.​

It's easy to be alarmed at the prospect of the 'KEF', particularly if it ends up matching the scale and complexity of the other legs of the 'accountability stool', the REF and TEF. However, what the KEF will be – and, what it will seek to achieve – is still uncertain: there are many elements of a potential framework that either exist already, or the sector has committed to, and it will be crucial for any future KEF to build on these to ensure its success.

As the concept of 'knowledge exchange' undoubtedly becomes more salient, it is worth reminding ourselves of the strengths and successes of UK universities in this area. The most recent Higher Education – Business Community Interaction (HEBCI) data (one of the pillars of any possible KEF) shows that knowledge exchange income across the UK has grown to a record £4.2 billion, with a 3% increase in England. Income from intellectual property such as licensing increased by 37% and formal spin offs based in intellectual property generated by universities increased by 18%.

The UK also produces world-leading research in technologies with scope for commercialisation and further growth, as revealed in the recently published International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016, while McMillan's latest report confirmed the UK university sector's world-class standard in technology transfer. Universities and their collaboration with businesses on knowledge exchange will therefore be crucial for the future​ success of the post-exit UK economy.

However, the celebration of these successes is no smokescreen: as well as underlining the success of the sector, the McMillan report also highlighted the need for enhanced reporting and leadership support, the building of staff expertise, and improvement of the evidence base, providing an initial scope and structure for a KEF.

UUK is committed to working with HEFCE, Research England and the newly merged PraxisAURIL to support these developments and has always recognised the need to be appropriately accountable for public funding.

Some of the principles that should initially guide the development of a KEF include:

  • Measured measures: accountability is accepted, and benchmarks can help develop practise, but every pound spent on administration takes a pound away from Knowledge Exchange: avoid at all costs any duplication of HEBCI.
  • Flexibility: one of the great strengths of Higher Education Innovation Fund funding in England is its flexibility, which enables universities to respond appropriately and quickly to different employer and partners' needs (eg supporting local enterprise partnerships with the development of their strategic economic plans): sacrifice this at your peril.
  • Broad focus: ​there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and knowledge exchange covers a wide range of activities, partners and disciplines which will vary across universities. Intellectual property income represents a tiny percentage of the overall total, and start-ups are also only a small part of university knowledge exchange activity.

Having covered some of the emerging issues in the development of  a KEF, one question remains: do we need one? In one sense the sector is already developing one, with mechanisms in place (such as HEBCI and HEIF strategies), and the proposals arising from the McMillan review. The sector shares the government's commitment to enhancing knowledge exchange and reinforcing the role of universities in the future economic success of the UK; dialogue on the development of the KEF should proceed along these lines, and make every effort to avoid any further comparison with the REF and the TEF.​

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Andy Penaluna
Andy Penaluna says:
13 October 2017 at 17:50

I suspect that there is also an issue as to what level of granularity may be required? Many Knowledge Exchanges start at staff level, and not necessarily through research activities. Enterprise and Entrepreneurship education is a good example, as many interactions are at a micro business level, not corporates, yet this has value in itself.

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