You probably won’t find many commentators worrying about the future of Knowledge Exchange (KE) following the Cabinet reshuffle and the move of the Universities Minister from BEIS to the Department for Education (DfE). Although its profile has risen in the last decade, KE is still a relative newcomer on the Higher Education (HE) block. Often misunderstood (do you mean Tech Transfer?), poorly judged (how many spin-outs do you have?), its institutional role (where does KE ‘sit’ in a university?) and external contributions unclear (what value does this activity create anyway?); KE has had to work hard to win respect.
That hard work has paid off: UK universities earned over £40billion from Business-Community interactions in the decade to 2019, PraxisAuril’s KE professional courses are in high demand, and the KE event calendar is fit to bursting. Today’s KE is emphatically not ‘just’ Tech Transfer, nor is it a niche activity for universities. Because of the strength and diversity of UK research and KE, universities were given a large role to play in the industrial strategy and achieving the 2.4% R&D target. Even before universities were coupled with the innovation agenda by moving the Ministerial brief to the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, the HE Innovation Fund (HEIF) had kickstarted activity that picked up pace with the Research Council’s impact agenda. More recently, the implementation of the KE Framework (KEF) and its companion KE Concordat has brought the KE mission centre stage, and the role of universities in place-based policy means that KE is central to many policy programmes.
So, isn’t the move of the University Minister to the Department for Education (DfE) a backwards step? What about increasing private investment in research? What about creating innovative new businesses from the research base? What about universities’ roles in regional regeneration? Isn’t that all more up BEIS’s street?
Well, as I see it, the pull for KE from the business base is part of the BEIS innovation narrative. But that should be complemented by a supportive push culture in universities, now in the DfE frame. That culture is actually being shaped right from the primary years by the IPO and its ‘Cracking ideas’ programme through undergraduate and into postgraduate programmes. And a more student-orientated KE agenda has already started to emerge, in fact. When HEFCE was disbanded to create the Office for Students (OfS) and Research England, the HEIF budget was split. HEIF has always had a teaching component but as the OfS now manages that part of the budget (just under 20%) there’s a desire to understand what KE achieves for students. As HEIF’s teaching element becomes more defined, so KE activity from and in that area will become more visible. At the same time, student enterprise and entrepreneurship has grown across the HE sector with its own professional networks (such as Enterprise Educators). Degree apprenticeships have been added into the mix and their value as another way to engage employers – that is, companies – that might go on to do other kinds of KE is being realised.
A big question is how the student remit links to the science portfolio – particularly beyond the undergraduate level. At BEIS, student workplace skills and university research impact were at the start of a path that led upwards and outwards into the innovation ecosystem. Coupling universities with innovation made sense from a KE point of view: one purpose being to attract private investment alongside public money invested in the research base. Assuming UKRI continues to report into BEIS, that is where the bulk of the HEIF budget (still) resides. Follow the money they say. But if the Universities Minister is at DfE, will BEIS want to talk about the value of a university innovation fund?
I think the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ but we need to keep articulating the value of KE as part of the science brief not just confined to universities and also as an enabler of economic, social and cultural impacts. We also need to emphasise that ‘science’ should include social sciences, humanities and the arts too. These are KE growth areas; creating new forms of collaboration, demanding new KE skills, and bringing different types of organisations into contact with universities.
KE professionals have a remit to roam across the university; to take in teaching, research and practice, to engage a wide range of stakeholders. They are unique roles that are able to work across disciplines. They are, therefore, perfectly placed to help new Ministers understand opportunities and issues in KE wherever departmental ownership resides. And our shared narrative should speak to both Departments and their Ministers; a KE narrative that talks about how KE can provide career opportunities for students on the one hand, whilst delivering the ‘ideas’ role in the industrial strategy on the other. Bringing organisations together is, after all, bread and butter to a KE professional. Taking this approach could mean that KE support structures, funding, and policy are properly resourced and joined up across and alongside the education spectrum up to the point where a wider range of innovation stakeholders kick-in. Re-imagining KE culture so that it becomes part of what the science base expects to do, because it’s what it has always done on its educational journey, could be a step-change for the quantity and quality of Knowledge Exchange; a ‘life-long learning’ approach perhaps. So don't get hung up on the reshuffle: just keep calm and KE on.