Time to Shine? KE professionals and the KEF

Last month I was among the speakers at InsideGov’s KEF conference, which was well-timed at almost exactly a month before the KEF consultation deadline. This made it an ideal opportunity to test some of our response content with PraxisAuril members among the delegates as well as picking up on key areas of concern and comment from presentations and discussions. 

The title of my talk - ‘Time to Shine? KE professionals and the KEF’ - was a little tongue in cheek and maybe also a little provocative, but deliberately so because PraxisAuril members are not often visible when it comes to discussions about KE. And part of my job is to promote the expertise and experience that resides in the member network and can be used to really understand the dynamics of KE, particularly in the university-business context.

I’ve said for some time that I hope that one of the benefits of the KEF will be to change the conversation around KE and that’s definitely happening as the sector grapples with KEF clusters, metrics and their presentation. I hope that this benefit extends to individuals too; that the KEF is encouraging (perhaps even obliging) PraxisAuril members to talk about the what, how and where of their work and be proud of their role at the intersection of research and external audiences; raising awareness of KE as a set of activities that have the potential to engage many different audiences for economic and social benefits.

Almost every university has some staff dedicated to facilitating KE. And because we deal with KE staff on a day-to-day basis we know how their roles differ according to the type of institutions they work in, the resources (including institutional support, funding and infrastructure) they have to do their work, and the problems that they face. We know that there is demand for a different skill set in specialised and / or arts institutions and that skills needs are also driven by changing emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinarity in research funding; we see KE roles expanding and diversifying as universities respond to external funder initiatives; a policy such as the industrial strategy has given rise to a number of specific business development posts recently, for example. Our work with members in Wales – where innovation funding was withdrawn – has been important and informative in respect of understanding the ‘counterfactual’.

The KEF will require us to examine the ways we facilitate KE and to think about innovative support modes and models. It is a fundamental part of our mission to be involved in such thinking with and on behalf of our membership.

Changing behaviours – top-down and bottom-up

We absolutely recognise and welcome the need for Leadership in KE – the focus of the Concordat which is still to be released – but do university leaders understand KE well enough? Do we need to train them too? We also know that there is a need to justify public investment in HE funding and metrics are one response to that as evidence of ‘what works’. But we also know that metrics can drive behaviour – encouraging a focus on one area at the expense of other activities or downplaying the contribution of less income-rich activity. We need to avoid that. On that note, cultivating the ‘right behaviours’ needs to extend to external collaborators too, particularly in sectors where there is a persistently low level of engagement with universities. To drive demand the KEF not only needs to provide a way for universities to benchmark performance and be ‘aspirational’ in how they approach KE but also provide a stimulus for organisations that may never have worked with a university before. That means that we need to be active participants in KEF development and take discussions to external partners where understanding of the context will be important to making the most of KEF metrics.

The KEF has also spurred on PraxisAuril to think about how we can support KE from the ‘bottom up’. We’re putting more effort into supporting the RTTP qualification – not by insisting that everyone should / must undertake this route but by holding it up as a qualification that provides internationally recognised levels of achievement in KE.  This follows the example of AUTM and ASTP-Proton and reaffirms that the UK is part of this international KE community. It is a way for individuals to reflect on their practice and demonstrate a certain level of achievement. In a sector that has a dizzying array of job titles this may be a useful way for employees and employers to really focus on skills and their application.

At the same time, we’re developing a mentoring scheme, which is proving to be very popular, and a peer-to-peer office review programme, which is in the pilot phase at the moment. This should offer Directors a way of assessing their office’s current performance in a number of categories (taken from HEBCI) and progress over time. It’s self-assessment initially but could be extended to third party review and recommendations. It’s meant to be done in a supportive environment, respectful of local conditions and resources. I can see how this offering in particular would fit well alongside the KEF, which is itself an institutional measure of course.

Alongside these larger programmes, we support a number of member-driven initiatives, like SIGs which have potential to draw out specialisms and explore the membership voice, and we know that there is a lot of appetite for more regional representation. The latter is important in context of Local Industrial Strategies of course and place-based innovation is another key theme to explore through the KEF: how the KEF clusters could facilitate that remains an open question.

All this activity should feed upwards and outwards, with positive benefits to individuals, teams and the knowledge exchange activities they support in and across HEIs and their partners.

Metrics to inform policy 

The issues surfaced in the KEF consultation are not really new for us but there’s no doubt that they’re being put in a different context and with far greater visibility because of the Industrial Strategy and associated initiatives and funding. The importance of really engaging with other stakeholders and data collectors to develop a KE narrative has really come home to me as I’ve reflected on what the KEF could / should achieve.

Done well, the KEF should help universities to play to their KE strengths but also supported to be ambitious in thinking about how to deploy resources, which are neither fixed nor unlimited year-on-year. Defining a KE focus and benchmarking performance against other institutions that are similar could provide a lens for such analysis. But universities may want to benchmark against HEIs outside their cluster, so flexibility needs to be built into the system. And while universities may understand the context that puts a particular set of HEIs together, it may be less clear to a business or charity wishing to engage.

We know that HE-BCI data presented as evidence of the national KE activity can lead to assumptions about a sector which diverse in terms of research strengths, KE missions, resources and activities. There is another important message about choice based on considerations of funding, risk appetite, skills and support: this applies to individuals not just institutions. Not all academics have the appetite for enterprise. And on the flip-side, headline figures for KE currently tend to focus on levels of patenting, but academics who patent ideas also engage with business in many other ways (we probably get a better sense of this through REF Impact case studies).

So effective KE becomes about integrating across different KE activities and seeing how value is created at each point. This is inextricably linked with the personal choices of researchers themselves. Institutional incentives and policies need to be carefully designed to allow those choices to flourish. And KE does not concern just a KE “office” or team – but overlaps with research managers and other business units within a university. These dependencies are often ignored.

Give the public, funders, businesses, investors, and the government confidence that universities are committed to engaging in meaningful economic and social collaborations. Evidence generated about KE rarely seem to provide the confidence that the government (in particular) seeks; rather than celebrating success there is more frequently scrutiny of the number of spin-outs created each year by a minority of HEIs of a particular type. So we clearly do need to find additional ways of assessing performance.

As we consider our responses to the KEF consultation, we need to bear in mind that, while the KEF is an institutional measure, KE is a people business and ultimately comes down to individuals and the interactions between them. That is why PraxisAuril’s aim is to help UK professionals achieve the highest standards through our training and initiatives; and build stronger connections with key players in industry to help them to see the benefits of university business collaboration. 

So what now? And what next?

We all recognise there is much more we can do and we want to understand the value and impact of training in KE; how skilled staff can enhance KE opportunities and reduce the challenges and barriers – real or perceived – and be ready for the next challenge: this might be about AI as a current hot topic, but also how to be much more inclusive of non-STEM disciplines in KE. This is something for all of us to think about as the KEF develops. We also need to appreciate better the links and complementarities between different training ‘lenses’ that exist across the KE spectrum provided by organisations including: ARMA, Enterprise Educators, Vitae and NCCPE. This will be an important, and unique, contribution to KE policy from professional development experts.

KEF outcomes will sit alongside the Teaching Excellence and Research Excellence Frameworks (TEF and REF) as the combined reflection of a university’s strengths in teaching and graduate employment, research impact, enterprise & innovation, civic mission, and international reach and reputation. I hope that by supporting our members to deliver high standards of KE, by providing compelling examples of success from across the UK, and by working with many other sector stakeholders we can inform the KEF's development and help to achieve outcomes that work for everyone.