Report by Dr Joe Marshall and Professor Graeme Reid, National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB)

The proposed creation of a Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) in the autumn of 2017 has provoked much debate and discussion, especially inside universities.

It has the potential to raise the profile of knowledge exchange; it creates a similar accountability for universities to Teaching (TEF) and Research (REF); and provides a mechanism for comparing or benchmarking performance between universities.

But knowledge exchange is by its very name and nature a two-way activity. It is not just about the value and benefit for one side – the universities. There are beneficiaries on the other side of the exchange: Businesses, public sector organisations, charities and third sector organisations can and do derive benefit from the interactions, collaborations and partnerships with universities.

The creation of a Knowledge Exchange Framework has the opportunity to celebrate, recognise and – most importantly – advance this area of activity to the benefit of everyone. The UK has a strong tradition and international reputation already in this area. But as the piece earlier in this section from Innovate UK sets out, we need to encourage more businesses to invest in, undertake and drive research and development across the UK.

We need, therefore, more and better information to help inform the decision-making process that business and other ‘users’ of University knowledge go through to decide who to collaborate with. At the heart of the proposed Framework is a commitment to bring together a comprehensive range of measures to determine how well Universities exploit their assets and capabilities for the benefit of the economy and society, but also to ensure fair comparison, recognising there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to knowledge exchange, and that we have a very diverse university sector in the UK.

To inform and feed into the development of the Knowledge Exchange Framework, the National Centre engaged with its membership base – in particular its business membership – to better understand what information or data would be useful to inform/ influence their interactions with universities.

Despite a strong steer in the initial briefings around KEF to use any information or data on knowledge exchange performance to benchmark universities (and ultimately create league tables) – from a choice perspective the businesses we spoke with saw little added value to the choice of collaboration. Easily accessible, high level data – analogous to TripAdvisor – appealed to some. Detailed data on interactions a University might have had in the past appealed to none.

The broad themes that did merge from businesses can be grouped into the following areas:

Individuals versus institutions

Businesses seek individual experts with whom to collaborate. It is the knowledge of individual academics that most interests them. But institutions set the tone of collaboration and provide communities of individuals. While both individual and institutional performance and reputation are of interest to businesses, it is the individual academic’s willingness and ability to engage that is of greatest importance.

Beyond commercialisation

Knowledge Exchange covers a broad range of activities including sponsoring academic chairs, contributing to the running cost of facilities, sponsoring higher apprenticeships as well as ‘in kind’ contributions such as donations of equipment and staff time. Intellectual property and spinout companies are small components of business relationships with universities and should not be given undue prominence in the KEF.

Strategic partnerships

Strategic partnerships between businesses and universities are costly and time-consuming to develop but are valued highly by businesses. Such partnerships can cover some or all of: recruitment, use of research facilities, continuing professional development, short-term problem solving and longer-term research collaborations. Strategic partnerships are often based on mutual trust and familiarity that grows over time, rather than contractual agreements (although contractual agreements may be in place). Large research universities with a broad span of excellence are particularly valuable as partners to business because partnerships can evolve over time to engage new research disciplines and combinations of discipline without the cost and risk of building new relationships with new university partners. Arguably, these strategic partnerships are not well captured in existing data collections such as the HE-BCI survey, so we welcome the news that HESA will review this dataset later in the year.

Transactional costs

Similarly, the risk and transactional cost of working with a new partner can be much greater than that of continuing to work with an existing partner so expanding existing collaboration is often preferred to creating a new one.


Universities with large scale and high reputation, for example in the REF, are interpreted by some businesses as less risky places with which to forge partnerships. This is particularly evident if a business is considering the relocation of its research activities or a major investment in a research campus. However, a strong local reputation for a university is of value to local firms.

Geographic location

Universities in close proximity are more attractive to businesses for many types of collaboration, including apprenticeships, teacher training, medical training, engineering, short-term problem solving or access to facilities and equipment. There is also some evidence that proximity is a particularly important factor for SMEs. A nearby university of lesser-perceived prestige may rank more highly as a partner than a traditionally more prestigious but more distant university. This is particularly true if one views Universities as producers of not just knowledge, but of skilled people.

The introduction of a Knowledge Exchange Framework could be a powerful instrument that both celebrates the great work already being done, but also encourages new ground to be broken and, as set out above, encourages more businesses to innovate, which is essential if government is to meet its target of 2.4% of GDP spending on R&D. The answer to this doesn’t lie with government, universities or businesses in isolation. Effective university-business interactions are an important way of meeting this challenge.


Published: 2 July 2018


This piece first appeared in the fifth annual State of the Relationship report, commissioned by Research England and published by NCUB.