The what, when, for whom and why of the KEF was thoroughly analysed at conference last month as delegates grilled our Research England speakers – many thanks, again, to Hamish McAlpine and Alice Frost for listening and responding in their usual considered way. So what did we learn?
There is concern about the KEF despite the ‘cautious welcome’ from KE Directors: not just about what it will look like, what it will measure, but the speed at which it is being introduced. This is not just from universities: Tom Thackray of the CBI used his keynote to ask for ‘time to get [the KEF] right’. A second consultation is pencilled in for late June and then roll out ‘from the autumn’ (a period which, we were assured, could last until December). And that will not be the final version, there will still be ample opportunity for feedback to get the model as good as possible. What happens next depends on what the metrics and model produces; will there be a link to funding? Probably, in time.
The stated aim of the KEF is to deliver a broad view of KE, although commercialisation remains an important topic and is likely to be a continued focus for many. In order to create ‘fair comparison’ there will be the possibility of creating clusters of peer-group institutions, looking at KE models and capabilities. The speed of implementation means that the first KEF will be restricted to existing data but data capture will be an ongoing process of which the HEBCI review will be part (this later in 2018 with HESA).
Evidence underpinning the KEF needs to be challenging and not just measure ‘the good stuff’. There is a clear desire, from PraxisAuril members at least, to capture the quality of engagement and not just the quantities. We know that repeat custom is something that isn’t visible in HEBCI but has been suggested as a measure of customer satisfaction. Going beyond that, how could a metric capture the ‘value add’ of an engagement? Or the time and effort spent with stakeholders – time that may not have an easily identifiable outcome. It could be that the ‘success’ was simply bringing people together and passing on an opportunity; universities frequently act as brokers for multiple inputs, bringing people together. This is where the role of narrative and contextualisation might come into play, although there was a clear steer away from REF-style narrative. At the end of the day a balance will need to be reached between the ideal and what can be done in practice.
One of the main problems in defining the outputs of the KEF is defining who the KEF is for and the kind of messages they want or need to hear as outputs from the KEF. Moreover, what messages do universities want their stakeholders to hear? Academics are an important internal audience, it’s not just about industry. In fact, there was some scepticism about whether business would be influenced at all by the KEF. What about impact on SMEs? A KEF ranking might be a way of distinguishing between universities in a region but choice is more likely to be down to personal contacts, research reputation and context. As ever, the trickiest audience to reach are those that are not already engaging. Government is the most obvious audience, hence the concern about linking outputs to funding.
Some KE Directors are welcoming the KEF of course. Just as PraxisAuril welcomed the initiative because it raises the profile of KE on a national scale, so the introduction of the KEF is raising the profile of enterprise units and ‘legitimising’ their activities and request for resources. There is a clear link here to the KEF Concordat project, led by UUK, which has the purpose of engaging with university leadership and positioning KE as a strategic activity deriving from and contributing to research and teaching. In this respect, the KEF may be particularly valuable to smaller units or universities who receive relatively small KE funding and need to build profile internally to justify and / or attract resources. It could also be the trigger for a re-think of how KE services are organised and implemented. In a related initiative, PraxisAuril is developing a self-assessment tool for KE offices where practitioners will offer peer-review to share good practice and learn from others who are doing things differently. This type of advice sharing is already a strong feature of the network, particularly among KE office Directors.
What will the KEF help institutions to do that HEBCI doesn’t? Hopefully it will lead to a better understanding of what KE is and the many dynamics that contribute to a data point (such as a spin-out). But should universities decide on strategic priorities because of what the Government wants (recent HEIF supplement is already linked to the Industrial Strategy) or because of what their setting and ambitions allow them to do? Is there room for both? Will the KEF demonstrate this, or either?
KE Directors know that there is a need to be accountable for public funding and that the focus put on universities in the industrial strategy is something of a double-edged sword: yes, there is more money for research collaboration and enterprise but there are also much greater expectations as a result and closer scrutiny is a given. That question about the link to funding once a KEF model is established is likely to be frequent and persistent. Metrics drive behaviours and there is clear awareness that KEF metrics should be about driving the right behaviour between actors.
Those ‘right behaviours’ extend to external collaborators too, particularly industry where there is a persistently low level of collaboration with universities with a relatively small number of large companies dominating the activity. To drive demand the KEF not only needs to act as a way for universities to benchmark performance and be ‘aspirational’ in their KE, but also as a stimulant to businesses to do more with the research base and as an attractor for businesses who may never have worked with a university before. We 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 groups such as the CBI we can inform the KEF's development and help to achieve outcomes that work for everyone.