Marking a significant milestone in the continuous improvement of knowledge exchange in universities, the first iteration of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) has been published. It is designed to increase the efficacy and efficiency of public funding for knowledge exchange and to further a culture of continuous improvement in universities.

The ‘KEF’, as it is commonly known to many in the higher education sector, compares English universities on a like-for-like basis, with similar universities grouped together with their peers in ‘KEF clusters’ based on factors like their size, specialisation and the intensity of their research activities. It compares a broad range of knowledge exchange activities including public and community engagement, working with partners ranging from big businesses to small local firms, and how they commercialise their research.

The development of a Knowledge Exchange Framework presents a novel and exciting proposition. In the words of Jo Johnston, former Universities and Science Minister, first announcing the creation of a knowledge exchange framework in 2017, “If we are to meet our national goals to increase R&D, we will need to continue to deepen these forms of engagement. Demonstrating this engagement and the associated economic impact will be important in making the case to the public and within government that increased public investment in research is justified”.

Underpinning the KEF is a series of metrics (predominantly collected through HESA’s HE-BCI survey) covering a wide range of a university’s activities. These then go into seven perspectives, for which each university receives a decile score displayed in relation to the average for its cluster. The website displays all this information into a simple dashboard- an easily interpreted, visually interesting series of charts and graphs that allow easy comparison of where the universities’ strengths lie.

Why the KEF matters

After a series of consultations, workshops and delays due to Covid, Research England’s publication of the KEF is a hugely positive step in the drive to enhance and develop knowledge exchange activity in universities.

Encouraging universities to see how they compare against a cluster average and pushing themselves to go further is about continuous self-improvement. The Knowledge Exchange Framework 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.

The KEF metrics could not possibly capture all of the diversity of knowledge exchange that happens across the university sector, particularly when it comes to the civic agenda. With this in mind, over 117 of the universities also provided additional detailed narratives of the work they do to build public and community engagement and to promote economic growth in their local area. These narratives bring to life the stories behind the metrics.

Examples of the kinds of projects detailed in the narratives include working with local partners to:

  • Redevelop and reinvigorate previously disused brownfield sites
  • Identify skill gaps and develop curricula and courses to address them
  • Boost research and development to attract investment in the local area

The inclusion of narratives in the KEF mark the first time that detailed, qualitative information about how universities build community engagement and promote growth in their local areas has been collected together in a structured and systematic way, allowing for easy comparison.

These narratives now constitute a rich resource of examples to demonstrate the value that universities bring to their communities, beyond just teaching and learning.  In light of the upcoming R&D Places Strategy and the Government’s commitment to levelling up, these detailed, real-life examples of universities’ contributions to their local areas will be important for the Government to take note of.

What next for the KEF?

With a KEF review planned in the Autumn, this is only the first iteration of the KEF, with a particular focus on areas where the KEF metrics do not fully capture the breadth of knowledge exchange. The KEF metrics have been scrutinised in the past for not including student placements, public sector impacts, media and broadcast appearances, consulting, coaching and training and importantly, in-kind flows (largely predominant in the Arts sector). Others have pointed out that the alumni impact, one of the UK’s biggest exports, with generations of alumni spread across industries all over the world, is not yet captured.

However, without doubt the KEF is not just about capturing university Knowledge Exchange Activity, it will also support and effect positive development.

In a webinar hosted by the Culture Capital Exchange in March, universities recognised the significance that the KEF has had on their internal processes, celebrating that this exercise has helped to surface these initiatives across their universities, capturing the value that many of their collaborative projects do have but is often overlooked.

Research England has succeeded in developing a refreshing and challenging new tool to make sense of what happens in the sector. Clustering helps to bring groups of similar institutions for the KEF allowing for small but specialist universities to showcase their particular strengths and the new data dashboards deliver increased visibility and accountability.

The data shows the rich contributions universities make, both economically and socially, at both local and national levels.