Conference report: Preparing for the Knowledge Exchange Framework in UK HEIs

With perfect timing, Westminster Briefing held a conference “Preparing for the New Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) in HE” on 21 November, which I had the pleasure of Chairing. Just two days previously Research England had released their first KEF documents: “Summary of KEF call for evidence responses” and “Knowledge Exchange Framework Metrics: A Cluster Analysis of Higher Education Institutions” by Thomas Coates Ulrichsen. 

 

Professor Trevor McMillan, Chair of Research England’s KEF Steering Group, set the scene and trailed the KEF Concordat, stressing the importance of measuring and evaluating how universities do Knowledge Exchange (KE).  He identified three key actions for university management: Make a clear statement of the role of KE in your institution; support staff in delivering to that role; and provide clear access points and policies to enable business to engage.  Evaluation should involve self-assessment, leading to a sharing of best practice and, where applicable, improved HEIF strategies.  I pointed out that a recent pilot carried out by PraxisAuril, providing a self-assessment tool to help member universities identify their KE aspirations and maturity levels, fits perfectly with this direction of travel.

Alice Frost, Research England, drew attention to the recent increases in KE funding by Government in her presentation “KEF and the land of opportunity” and the need for the KEF to demonstrate that the principles of KE (concordat and good practice sharing) are being measured and communicated to the public.  With reference to Tomas Ulrichsen's report, she introduced the new concept of “clusters” of universities so that KE performance could be compared with others of similar resource and capabilities, rather than all compared to some notional “gold standard”. 

Joe Marshall, NCUB, presented a view from industry, stressing the need for universities to understand business drivers as well as their own if they are to realise their potentially pivotal role in supporting the national innovation agenda.  Businesses would like to see more “people exchanges” as part of KE and he emphasised the importance of building trust and reputation in establishing strategic partnerships. The value of the ‘user voice’ in all aspects of KE is an important one but hard to capture in current metrics (but see our blog series on industry engagement).

In the afternoon, speakers from London Metropolitan University and the Royal College of Art gave impressive examples of what KE means in their institutions.  Finally, Anne Klein of the Chartered Association of Business Schools rounded off the session with a provocative talk questioning the need for the KEF at all! Throughout the day a lively participation by the delegates attested to the high level of interest in the proposals.

In my summing up, I noted that in barely 20 years we have moved from debating whether KE (then described as “Third Leg” or Third Arm”, nudge, wink) was a proper primary activity for universities at all, to a discussion about how to embed, measure and improve KE.  KE is now widely accepted as one of the three core activities carried out by universities.  I pointed out that PraxisAuril was proud to have worked with Research England and others to provide input from the KE practitioners’ perspective and that this would continue. But we live in unertain times, and with a new Universities Minister in post, will the KEF survive?  Will we see the draft Concordat published before Christmas, as promised? How will universities react to the proposed KEF clusters and metrics when released? Are metrics the best way to measure this activity at all? And how will the public at large benefit from this exercise? Lots of questions remain – perhaps for a future conference?

Dr David Secher is Patron and co-Founder of PraxisAuril.