Last month I wrote on the significance of HE-BCI and its future, in advance of our conference in Birmingham. That significance was brought into sharp relief by the events of the day – and the shared commitment of the KE practitioners, data curators and policy leads in the room to ensuring the critical activity taking place between universities, businesses and wider society is supported and recognised.

The Higher Education – Business and Community Interaction Survey (HE-BCI) is a critical data collection – in which information on knowledge exchange is collected in the UK. It is one of the foundational datasets for decision-making for funding bodies across the UK. And as HESA’s Head of Policy and Development Dan Cook pointed out, it serves to inform policymakers and strategic leads across the country.

In the course of his presentation, Dan revealed what many had come to hear – that HE-BCI is under review by HESA. This is an ideal time to start that process: HE-BCI is a long-running dataset which traces its consolidated origin back to 1999. Twenty years is a long time in knowledge exchange: practices, methodologies and even funds and incentives designed to catalyse it have moved on. In turn, universities and businesses are finding their evolutionary approaches and new activities are going unmeasured – and unrecognised. This is specifically apparent in the community partnerships space, where the diversity of activity is hard to measure with current tools.

Getting this right has always mattered. So much is predicated on HE-BCI and other datasets: universities’ assessments of their strengths and weaknesses in their work with business and wider society, and businesses’ understanding of their HE partners’ activity. Critically, Government’s and funding councils’ understanding of what works, what needs support and how to exploit the rich potential of university-business interaction to drive economic goals – and leverage universities’ civic work to empower and uplift places. In the present political and economic context this is ever more vital.

What’s more, with the advent of the Knowledge Exchange Framework – and the launch of the pilot clusters – HE-BCI data can and will do so much to inform progress. With the KEF one of the most significant exercises for knowledge exchange assessment on the horizon, the need for a retooled HE-BCI becomes ever more apparent.


“With the KEF one of the most significant exercises for knowledge exchange assessment on the horizon, the need for a retooled HE-BCI becomes ever more apparent.”

The importance of HE-BCI to funding councils and the KEF was made abundantly clear in Birmingham by Hamish McAlpine, Research England’s Head of KE Data and Evidence. Hamish set HE-BCI in the context of the Government’s aspiration to increase investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, the increase in HEIF to £210m per annum, and the overarching framework supplied by the 2017 Industrial Strategy. Not to mention one significant change since last year – the formal integration of UKRI. Our CEO Joe Marshall took a similar tack – drawing on his experience to set HE-BCI against its modern political backdrop, and embedding it in a very practical understanding of what universities – and their collaborations and partnerships – are for.

One observation Hamish made on KEF that was particularly relevant to HE-BCI was the need for it to capture activity from, and relate to, the whole HE sector. We heard this message loud and clear from our university members in our roundtables on knowledge exchange, so this acknowledgement was pleasing to hear – and of course where there are gaps in HE-BCI’s collection these should be addressed.

But as some institutions pointed out, the resource committed to collecting data for HE-BCI and other returns (such as TEF, REF and of course soon KEF) is not infinite and does not automatically expand in line with the demands upon it. Understandably, Dan was keen to point out that where gaps in HE-BCI we identified and filled, so the review would also identify data collection that no longer serves a useful purpose.

He also set out a roadmap: a route to a HE-BCI that delivered a single, UK-wide data infrastructure for consistency and comparability; which works for all stakeholder groups; meets priorities for each of the Devolved Administrations; supports the Industrial Strategy; and fundamentally helps the HE sector to advance.

Attendees from the KE community welcomed the review – and fed in their views on what a revised HE-BCI should look like. From better capture of non-financial metrics; deeper recognition of community and civic activity, as part of a more place-rooted sensibility; and a creative approach to finding proxies for impact other than income were all posited amongst other views. Working with HESA and RE, in the coming weeks NCUB will co-produce an insights document which will capture these views and more.

“We want to ensure good work is not lost in the noise, and new approaches are allowed to flourish.”

NCUB is committed to maintaining our close links to the review of HE-BCI – and not just in its established relationship with KEF, in which our remit is clear: but more broadly, feeding in our member views, helping to ensure the voices of not just universities, but also industry are heard. And developing and sharing insights. We want to ensure good work is not lost in the noise, and new approaches are allowed to flourish.

However difficult measurement of some university, business and societal interaction might be, institutions, businesses, funding councils and others must work in concert to answer the difficult questions and build a stock of data that ensures vital activity is recognised, supported and catalysed. Anything less is to risk hampering the transformative potential of our research and industrial base.