Policy engagement: a topical form of knowledge exchange

PraxisAuril and ARMA recently joined forces on a knowledge sharing event about the QR Strategic Priorities Fund (QR SPF), allocated to HEIs eligible for Research England funding for the first time in 2019-20. In 2020-21, £29 million has been allocated with universities receiving somewhere between £50,000 and £1 million in funding. Funding is hypothecated but not so much so that it can’t be used in a way that suits local needs, ambitions and context.  

The purpose of the event was to reflect on how the fund had been used to date, to talk about the opportunities but also the challenges, and give both funder and universities ideas for doing things differently next time around. Our four panellists from Manchester University, Newcastle University, Edgehill University, and the Royal Veterinary College presented an impressive range of activities enabled by this, relatively small, funding line.

Policy engagement matters

The aim of the QR SPF is to support effective links with policy research priorities and opportunities, from the local to the international. This includes with parliament, central government, devolved administrations, local government, health and education bodies, the justice system and other regulatory organisations.

As we are all too aware, policy engagement is a hot topic at the moment because of the need for an informed and evidenced approach to managing the Covid-19 pandemic. But there has been a growing amount of activity in this space for some time; notably at the national level and lead by the POST KE team which has just celebrated its second anniversary (link to report). At the same time, engagement at the local and regional level has been in the spotlight because of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and the work of the Civic University Network. That has dovetailed with calls for a more locally-led pandemic response as the crisis goes on and serendipitously created an external focus and stimulus for policy KE, which this funding enables HEIs to respond to at short notice.

KE matters

QR SPF isn’t presented explicitly as funding for ‘knowledge exchange’ – in fact that term isn’t used at all in the website guidance which feels like a missed opportunity.

Key words that came up in case studies and conversation included, ‘engagement’, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘partnerships’ which to me all sound very much like knowledge exchange. But rather than talking about KE ‘modes’ and finding practical examples, the topical lens enabled meant we talked about people and their ambitions first and then heard about (KE) methods of supporting them. How much HEIF might have supported this activity before QR SPF came on the scene is unclear, but we know that policy ‘impact’ is hard to quantify and perhaps HEIs have been wary of using HEIF for activity that can’t be adequately reported back into HE-BCI data and thereby positively impacting overall HEIF allocations. In fact, one thing we didn’t talk about was metrics and how the success of this activity is measured internally and back at Research England. This is an important point for the KEF: we want this KE to be captured and not (just) buried in REF impact case studies and I know this is an ongoing topic of discussion with Research England’s KE team.

By the end of our event I certainly felt that the fund should be more widely appreciated as an enabler for collaborative research, stakeholder engagement and partnerships – in other words for KE – albeit with a specific focus on policy. Importantly, the funding also supports people – through fellowships or secondments – and overcomes one of the main barriers to academic engagement with KE: time. Here, funding effectively legitimises KE activity and means it is recognised in workload.

Bolstering the KE mission

If this is KE, how does it support institutional KE missions? Well, it links to the KE Concordat principles of widening (KE) participation among all staff types, investing in and supporting diverse modes of KE across a range of disciplines, and providing clear routes for partners to engage with the HEI. It allows some experimentation – risk taking – and encourages that to be done with external partners in what is increasingly referred to as ‘co-creation’.

Another cross-over, in terms of KE activity, is at the local and sub-regional level where policy engagement meets the civic agenda and can demonstrate the value of an HEI’s convening power and role as a neutral space for discussion on topics that bring together public policymakers with a range of stakeholders. I had the same feeling of recognising activity that wasn’t defined as KE, but which ticked all the boxes, at a Civic University Network event a few weeks ago, which I commented on at the time. But then, as my ARMA colleague Jon Hunt reflects, perhaps we’re all doing KE now. 

Semantics aside, this is a new fund and RE is keen to balance burden with a light touch approach – so no strategies required (yet). But this activity should absolutely have a place in institutional action plans for the KEC. I can’t see why HEIs wouldn’t want to ‘flaunt’ their policy engagement and share KE tactics, skills and resources with other KE teams internally as well as in policy engagement fora (such as UPEN) and national KE discussions led by PraxisAuril and ARMA.

A challenge for this year’s funding is to manage expectations: keeping some projects going from last year’s allocation but also facilitating new initiatives with the new funding stream and keep momentum going. All this at a time when policy engagement is in high demand and a high priority for HEIs trying to meet raised expectations for local, national, and international knowledge exchange. A good excuse – should we need one – to keep networking KE and policy engagement professionals to share ideas, discuss challenges and improve practice.

Tamsin Mann, Director of Policy & Communications (tamsin.mann@praxisauril.org.uk