With events in SW1 this week extraordinarily febrile, a couple of miles west of the parliamentary bearpit we heard some announcements at today’s fourth Research England Engagement Forum which were quietly but insistently compelling in their own way.

We know universities, already at the heart of our national educational, cultural and social ambitions, are being located ever more centrally and explicitly in the economic and commercialisation space. Today Government and Research England sought to add to the toolkit they can access to do even more. And with this comes a recognition that the ever-increasing number of moving parts in KE need to groove frictionlessly together – and that there’s no time like the present for making sure that happens.

The 2.4% commitment was very much front of centre in how Government and Research England thinking was presented; and the opportunity for universities to take leadership and authorship of their own fate through gripping the commercialisation agenda was a big part of the subtext of discussions. The way the sector responds to stimuli like the KEF, KE Concordat, Mike Rees’ well-received and fascinating review of university-investor relations and more, will both help them deliver on their own potential and underpin national economic ambitions. But before we look at this in the round, we should first unpack today’s announcements.

An uplift in HEIF – and a review of the funding method

Returning universities minister Chris Skidmore celebrated the ten-day anniversary of his comeback (to a job he would prefer not to have left in the first place, by all accounts) by delivering a video message setting out a package of measures which are intended to change the shape of knowledge exchange funding. He went beyond warm words for higher education (and its work with business) – though as ever with this minister, those were very much present – and into the realm of some joined-up thinking around KE.

Firstly, he confirmed the Industrial Strategy ambition that HEIF would be uplifted to £250m by 2020/21, a new-money increase of over 50% since 2016 (and it was heartening to hear the Industrial Strategy explicitly called out here). It’s always positive to see HEIF supported, and even an occasional consumer of NCUB’s outputs over the last few years will have heard us beat that particular drum before. But it’s especially valuable now, with HEIF being demonstrably a progressive fund and potentially less concentrated in research intensive institutions (as can be seen from recent allocations). It’s an opportunity to get behind a wider range of approaches and specialisms and unlock their potential in pursuit of 2.4%.

And hand in hand with this is a review of the present HEIF funding method, formula and accountability regime, which should inform the later stages of the funding period ending 2024/25. This could have many implications; but explicitly the nascent Knowledge Exchange Framework will be placed at the heart of the approach. This is not surprising and in many ways recognises the hard work of Research England colleagues on the KEF, though of course we know there remains more to do. But progress was further acknowledged through the next announcement.

Endorsement for the Knowledge Exchange Framework – a scheduled rollout next year; support for the Concordat; and work towards smoother IP policies

The minister enthusiastically set out plans for the KEF: namely, a rollout over the next year. Implementation plans will be published by the end of the year, and we can expect the first results in late Spring 2020. KEF will no doubt evolve, but the more information and evidence can be assembled and deployed, the faster the sector – and critically, the users – can hone and sharpen their understanding of their KE activities and seek continuous improvement. We will be following with interest and, as ever, supporting Research England in their work. The KE Concordat wasn’t left out of discussions and its role was well-recognised, alongside the work being done by Trevor McMillan and others in its development and socialisation. And the aforementioned Mike Rees review will inform work between Research England and the devolved funding bodies on institutional IP policies which can help to deliver better commercialisation outcomes. We’ll showcase some fascinating first-hand insight on this on our website very shortly.

Knowledge exchange – as much for students as it is tech transfer officers (perhaps)

Research England and the Office for Students are also embarking on a £10m ‘what works’ joint call to support a range of projects exploring how students can benefit from involvement in KE – a really interesting joint deployment which could have significant impact in maximising student involvement in KE, the benefits they accrue and the sharing of best practice. Notwithstanding the glib subhead, student involvement in many forms of KE is under-recognised (with the Concordat, among other interventions, seeking to ameliorate that oversight).

So what next?

We also await some other pieces of the puzzle which don’t all lie within the purview of Research England. Sir Adrian Smith and Professor Graeme Reid’s review of future frameworks for international collaboration is set to be an urgent and timely contribution to the discourse around funding for research and partnership activity. The future design and delivery of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will also have implications, especially for institutions which have used ERDF creatively to create frameworks for KE, innovation and collaborative activity. As these and other elements fall into place, so we’ll be able to build a more holistic picture of how a future ecosystem could develop. But it seems clear that we’re seeing clear-throated articulations of the value of HE and its collaborations with business in the words and actions of Government and agencies. And a recognition of the urgent need to turbo-charge that value to hit some pretty ambitious national targets. Enough to keep those with an interest in KE from following Parliamentary affairs, if only for a while.

Photo credit: Sally Trussler, Brunel University – submitted to our Collaboration Captured photo competition.