Today Research England published its Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) Decisions Report, setting out its plans for the first iteration of the KEF. Described by Research England as a ‘minimal burden’, can the first iteration of KEF live up to this claim and are there many changes from the original consultation?

The updates

The KEF was first announced in Jo Johnson’s 2017 ministerial letter and the first results are expected to be published in the summer. As detailed by Jo Johnson’s ministerial letter, KEF will evaluate the contribution UK universities make to the exploitation of knowledge. There is a particular focus on discoveries making it all the way from idea to implementation and from prototype to profit. This is without doubt a core aspect of collaboration with business.

The Decisions Report has maintained the same seven perspectives set out in the consultation, but has adjusted the metrics within. As hoped, it has been confirmed that data will be collected from existing statutory returns or other available sources. Many of the business-related metrics have been split into SME and non-SME categories. Public engagement will be measured by self-assessment rather than time committed. Furthermore, normalisation of metrics will be done by income rather than FTE staff, shifting away from individual academic focus. Metrics will be displayed as a decile rank on a user-friendly dashboard.

To sit alongside the metrics, institutions will be asked to submit three narrative statements to support their submissions. These will not be compulsory in the first iteration. As set out in the consultation, these narratives will supply context for activities that cannot be fully represented by metrics and allow for further institutional comparison. Narrative templates will be released in February and submissions should be submitted by 15 May 2020.

The University cluster titles have also been decided and institutional groupings are expected to be published next month. There will be seven in total, the only change being the removal of the Social Sciences and Business cluster due to it being ‘too small for meaningful comparison’.

The implications: strategy steering?

What are the implications of the KEF?

The KEF may be used in future to inform the allocation of the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), though the Decisions Report refrains from making such a link explicit. The Report strongly encourages all HEIF eligible institutions to participate, including those who do not receive any funding this year. The writing on the wall would suggest that in future years both KEF and the Research Excellence Fund (REF) will be important and interconnected factors impacting universities’ research and innovation funding.

Beyond the issue of funding, the KEF attempts to frame and value Knowledge Exchange (KE) activity. Understandably, this mission has elicited a range of responses from universities, all of which develop their KE strategies within the specific contexts of their localities, their specialisms and their institution-wide objectives.

The KEF was always intended to capture a broad range of activity. Speaking at a UUK conference in December, Trevor McMillan made clear that KE was no longer ‘all about IP and spin-out companies’. Indeed IP features directly in only one of the seven perspectives. This leaves six perspectives looking to businesses and the community through other frames. Indeed, KEF seeks to drive universities’ strategies to better work for the nation as opposed to a single institution. KEF adds an economic frame to REF, taking university strategy beyond research as KEF captures impact beyond the financial.

NCUB welcomes attempts to recognise non-financial metrics and evaluate the extent of impact rather than merely income. These attempts need to continue until impact and value, for both HEIs and others, are truly measured and shared. We are keen for the commercialisation agenda to be more frequently and more clearly rewarded in future iterations of KEF. It will also be important to ensure that metrics are not being artificially skewed to enhance KEF performance. Any review of the KEF metrics should not only consider how useful and informative they are, but also how easily the output can be distorted through feeding of the tri-annual mean and normalisation system. Despite these reservations, we must believe that universities wish to accurately reflect their knowledge exchange activities and provide a system which fairly aids this desire.

The implications: burden or brochure?

Will the KEF exercise actually be one of ‘minimal burden’?

The KEF will be significantly less arduous than the REF, but it will require some regular allocation of resources from university knowledge exchange teams. In the current landscape, size and capability of such teams vary wildly from institution to institution and we may well see the effect of this in the comparable narrative statements. Specifically, for inexperienced institutions wishing to gain HEIF allocation and increase KE activity, it remains to be seen whether KEF assessment will become another hoop to jump through or a valuable step in encouraging KE.

Narrative statements are potentially one of the more interesting outputs of KEF. These statements will describe context, activities and outputs, offering a qualitative comparison between institutions. It is pleasing that these statements should be ‘jargon-free’ and accessible to both businesses and the general public. In our view, the metrics used as part of KEF should similarly be visualised in an accessible manner.

A series of roundtables in 2019, led by NCUB, suggested that businesses were not interested in detailed data. Businesses tend to be interested in individual research partners rather than institutions. They tend to care about what universities are like, not what they do. We shall have to wait and see to what extent businesses view KEF as an accurate reflection on the tone of institutions and whether this motivates interaction and collaboration. If a research partner moved to a university with a lower KEF ranking, would a business continue collaborating with them?

This raises more foundational questions of why businesses collaborate and how they choose the manner of collaboration. NCUB are soon to carry out a nation-wide survey on business motivations which shall uncover and benchmark the answers to these questions, providing a valuable source of information to HEIs and to the government. These findings will be vital to KEF as it seeks to share information that is useful to fulfilling university strategy and incentivising business interaction.

Everything in the KEF is ‘subject to review’. The full KEF implications for institutions will become clearer as the process continues, and we are faced with the possibility that the status quo could change year on year. Although we have not seen so many changes to the KEF as a result of the consultation, there may be more significant changes in the future based on practical experiences.

It will take time to see whether KEF has positive commercial and community consequences. Policymakers are experiencing themselves the complexity of making it all the way from idea to implementation; we will ensure KEF will help universities and businesses to do just that.