The first ‘KEF’ or Knowledge Exchange Framework published earlier this year, marked the first time that detailed, qualitative information about how universities build community engagement and promote growth in their local areas has been collected in a structured and systematic way.

These narratives now constitute a rich resource of examples that demonstrate the value that universities bring to their communities, beyond their teaching and learning and research contributions.

In light of the Government’s  R&D Places  and Levelling Up agendas, these detailed, real-life examples of universities’ contributions to their local areas will provide useful insights for  Government policy development.

With such a rich repository of evidence at our fingertips, NCUB wanted to explore further to uncover just what universities are doing to help their local areas to regenerate and flourish economically and societally, and examine the full extent to which the KEF can provide valuable evidence of university engagement.

Clusters and metrics

Underpinning the KEF is a series of metrics (predominantly collected through HESA’s HE-BCI survey) covering a wide range of a university’s knowledge exchange activities. These then go into seven perspectives related to user groups for which each university receives a decile score displayed in relation to the average for its cluster. ‘KEF clusters’ are based on factors like their size, specialisation and the intensity of their research activities.

While the KEF metrics are effective in measuring knowledge exchange activity in universities, it is not possible to capture all of the diversity of knowledge exchange that happens when it comes to the civic agenda. With this in mind, 87% of the universities provided additional detailed narratives of the work they do to build public and community engagement and to promote economic growth in their local area.

Promoting local and economic growth

Local growth and regeneration activities can include a huge variety of activities and can be difficult to measure quantitatively. The definition used within the KEF includes specific knowledge exchange activities that are targeted to make a difference locally or, specifically, targeted KE activity where higher education institutions, businesses, public sector and the wider civil society work together to achieve a strategic goal with a prime focus on local growth or regeneration in a self-defined local area. This can include local economic development, social inclusion, public space or infrastructure improvements and reconversion of brownfield areas.  These narratives, read alongside the metrics, can help bring to life the stories behind the metrics and highlight just how varied institutional local activity can be.

Here are a few highlights chosen from amongst NCUB membership:

  • Aston University, scoring in the top 20% for local growth and regeneration, for example, is part of the Energy Research Accelerator (£60M from Innovate UK/ £120M match) providing a network of equipment that companies can access to support reduction of carbon usage (a key priority for the region). Their broader portfolio of 14 dedicated SME support programmes builds on their academic expertise in photonics, data analytics, supply chain management, functional materials, advanced services and bio-energy. Aston provided match-support to leverage an impressive total of £10.4 million ERDF funding to support these programmes.
  • The narrative provided by the University of Leeds lays out the numerous ways in which they have contributed to local growth. Since 2017, businesses supported by SPARK, the University’s Business Start-up support service for students and graduates, has generated over £13.2 million, created 297 jobs and secured external investment of £5.4m. The university’s spinouts are predominantly based in the Leeds City Region, and have generated turnover over £70 million, attracting an investment income of £137 million.
  • The University of Westminster, established as London’s first Polytechnic and serving one of the most diverse populations of students and communities in the UK, details an approach to local growth and regeneration with a focus on Student Enterprise. The Creative Enterprise Centre, housed within the University,has created a consortium of developers, local FE colleges, and business organisations that aims to support Harrow’s creative industries. Activities include support for Westminster graduates to locate their start-up businesses in Council run co-working spaces; provision of business support to local SMEs through the Harrow Business Improvement District; employment-creation opportunities for Westminster students; and the recent award of a £50,000 grant from the GLA to support the consortium’s application for GLA Creative Enterprise Zone funding.

These three examples sit among a host of others that demonstrate the breadth of activities universities engage in as well as the importance of reading the narratives alongside the metrics.

The KEF moving forward

The Knowledge Exchange Framework is in the very early stages of development but already its impact has been shown.

Research England is launching a review of the KEF and has asked universities to provide  their views through an online survey on the usefulness and impact of the KEF, to be followed in the summer with deeper dive focus group discussions. The review will also consider the different user journeys, and how users outside of academia, such as those from local partners, engage with the KEF.

The KEF will help English universities understand where their strengths are, relative to others with similar missions, and showcases a diverse picture of the tremendous work they do in their respective places, nationally and internationally. Simultaneously, universities are proactively leading the way in boosting their KE good practices further through their commitment to the Knowledge Exchange Concordat. The UK government is committed to levelling up across the whole of the United Kingdom, particularly as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hoped that future iterations of the KEF will further highlight the ways in which universities make significant local impact.