HEFCE published today the annual report on the evolution of knowledge exchange in the UK based on the Higher Education Business and Community Interactions (HE-BCI) survey.

The report provides an analytical and robust account of the value of the multiple ways in which HEIs interact with non-academics, using data collected annually by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Other than putting into context data from the relevant statistical first release, this report fulfils important objectives for the sector:

  • It captures a breadth of interactions ranging from collaborative research projects (3-way funding), contract research (buying of research resources from external parties), intellectual property activity and its management but also covering continuous professional development within the local communities, uses of the facilities and equipment by external parties, and albeit admittedly difficult to account for it, it also aims to follow outputs of entrepreneurship activities by students and academics.
  • It provides a leading indicator for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to assess the impact of science spending as it captures the value that the non-academic sector places on academic knowledge and capital resources. Total income from knowledge exchange grew 5% in cash terms in the last year, faster than GDP growth and in stark contrast with a reduction in overall spending in gross expenditure in R&D, which fell by 1.65% in cash terms.
  • It provides public funders of Knowledge Exchange with a tool to monitor changes in the activities captured by the survey and tailor action to boost or counteract wanted or unwanted changes, and such is the case for HEFCE whose allocations of knowledge exchange funding are informed by results of this survey. This report does not provide institutional breakdowns but institutions can access their own data through HESA (at no charge) and benchmark their position in knowledge exchange with respect to others.

The analysis, informed by a sector-wide stakeholders group of which the NCUB is a member, shows healthy progress in all categories of knowledge exchange income and activity with the only exception of income from regeneration programmes, which fell for reasons external to HEI efforts like the winding down of Regional Development Agencies. Still, all other categories reported continuously growing income in cash terms, with fastest growth in collaborative research and IP income at 9% each, and slowest in consultancy at 0.5% in the year to 2012/13.

Splitting the findings by type of partner, as per large or small business or public (and third sector) organisations reveals important details. Two observations are worth noting:

  • Income from consultancy interactions are kept to the slowest level of growth by a reduction of engagement with public organisations only. This may be a mitigating factor in slow growth in consultancy as in effect HEIs increased their interactions with private large (8%) and small (6%) business.
  • Every other type of interaction activity split by partner saw an increase in income from both large and small businesses with the only exception of income from use of facilities and equipment by small external parties, which saw a small decrease of 5%.

This being the first year this category and partner experience a fall in income it seems too premature to call for immediate action; especially since the smaller business still contribute more than the larger ones to this income category – meaning that they also benefit more. The value of this report is however in allowing the sector to keep a watchful eye on these changes to ascertain whether they are sustained and if so what could be driving them.

Dr Rosa Fernandez is Head of Research at NCUB