By Dr Joe Marshall, CEO, National Centre for Universities and Business

Members will remember our productive work with the then Higher Education Funding Council for England on the initial design of the Knowledge Exchange Framework. Despite the formation of Research England as part of UKRI over the past year, and all the challenges that transition could bring, colleagues have continued to labour behind the scenes on the KEF and NCUB continues to support and offer its members the opportunity to feed in practically. And with the forthcoming consultation expected soon, this work will be ever more vital.

Several such opportunities took place over recent months, as we hosted a series of roundtables bringing together thought leaders from our university and business membership to reflect on the changing state of knowledge exchange. The drawing of breath before the opening of the KEF consultation gave us a chance to consider the more deliberative questions that now arise as KE continues to mature as a defined part of university remits. We did not confine our discussions to the KEF – critical though that will be. Without entirely neglecting metrics, we also considered cultural, geographic and even narrative factors to identify opportunities to improve the flow of KE in the UK.

It was a pleasure to attend several of these roundtables and witness the mix of thinking – from the practical and solution focused to the more theoretical and abstract. We have distilled our members’ views into a letter which we have sent to Research England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Scottish Funding Council; that letter is copied here. There are recommendations for central Government; steers for providers; and perhaps some more heartening findings than might be expected. Headlines include:

  • The UK is better at knowledge exchange than we sometimes assume – but competitors are snapping at our heels. OECD data – drawn from surveys, but still a useful barometer of perception – shows the UK as the strongest country in the world in terms of university collaborations in innovation with SMEs. World Economic Forum data is similarly encouraging. But contrary to perception our performance with SMEs – despite the challenges in maintaining long-term strategic relationships – outstrips that with large corporates. HEIF is highly effective, and includes incentives to work with SMEs – while KTPs, the Knowledge Exchange Grant in Scotland and other interventions support and encourage SME-university collaborations, in effect subsidising the transactional costs of working with smaller firms which are a substantial part of the value of them contract in such work. The absence of specific KE funding for universities in Wales puts them – and Welsh firms – at a clear disadvantage to the rest of the UK. Larger firms reported that university collaborations are inhibited by the design of funding schemes. For example larger blocks of Knowledge Transfer Partnerships could be agreed with firms who make repeated use of that initiative.
  • Government should keep supporting improvements in KE but moderate its public criticism of research commercialisation – Government’s public statements on the relationship between research and business has often claimed that the UK is good at science but not so good at commercialising it and the Prime Minister said as much in the 2017 Industrial Strategy. Robust challenge to the KE community is healthy – but Ministerial criticism can be unhelpful in an international context, particularly when KE is a challenge even to those who we perceive to be especially strong. When the UK is nurturing so many international relationships and an outward presentation of justified confidence is helpful, Government statements should celebrate some of the many successes in research commercialisation and knowledge exchange, such as those NCUB sets out in our State of the Relationship reports.
  • KE should be more customer-led – we heard of excellent examples of universities triaging user enquiries to other institutions better suited to meet the needs of the customer. But many observed that this behaviour was perhaps discouraged by present incentives and was far from consistent across the community. University KE teams should be encouraged to introduce businesses to other universities if that is more suitable.
  • Non-financial metrics should be better taken into account – not all effective KE can be measured by rates of financial return. Income is not the only viable metric for good KE and indeed it fails to fully take into account public policy or civic impacts. And long-term strategic partnerships add value beyond the bottom line. This also extends to definitions of KE which do not align with the ‘non-traditional’ such as collaborations in creative industries and the arts.

This correspondence, however, is not the last opportunity for NCUB members to engage on this topic. Whilst we hope these reflections are of use to Government and funding councils, we are already embarking on the next phase of our work on Knowledge Exchange and the KEF and will share more information shortly. We hope you will take the opportunity to work with us and help to shape the next generation of collaboration in the UK.

Click the image to view the letter sent to Research England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Scottish Funding Council:

NCUB letter KE


Published: 10 December 2018