This article is a response to Professor Graeme Reid’s blog on the ongoing development of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF): What do businesses think about the KEF? I.
As Professor Reid rightly points out, the second stated purposes of the KEF – of being a useful source of information for businesses and other users (and potential users) of university-generated knowledge – is the more challenging to fulfil. But before I address some of the more specific points distilled from NCUB’s workshops with business, I’d like to reflect further on our current performance.
International comparisons of KE performance do paint a relatively positive picture of UK university-business interactions, and I would add to the sources highlighted by Professor Reid our own international comparisons of specific IP and commercialisation performance with the US and Japan. These show that we perform favourably across virtually all measures where comparable data exists.
But what these league tables and figures don’t show is the very mature view of knowledge exchange that UK universities have. From my interactions with other countries, what strikes me most about KE practice in the UK is the breadth of what we consider to be KE and the genuine recognition of the benefits of ‘exchange’, rather than ‘transfer’. Every university I have visited recognises that KE cuts across research and teaching, to encompass concepts such as skills development, practice informed teaching and co-location of industry, delivering benefits not just to the partner, but staff, students and graduates too.
“From my interactions with other countries, what strikes me most about KE practice in the UK is the breadth of what we consider to be KE and the genuine recognition of the benefits of ‘exchange’, rather than ‘transfer’.”
Turning to the specific observations from businesses, the comment that sticks with me most was from a senior industrialist with significant experience of partnering Universities: “Businesses have never heard of HE-BCI, and when you tell them about it, they don’t care”.
This sentiment is reflected in the first two points from Professor Reid’s summary: that league tables matter little, data is not useful in isolation, and what collaborators really want is someone to solve their problem. If they have a good track record, all the better.
There are two ways we are intending to address these observations. The first is our commitment to explore how to integrate more directly the ‘voice of the user’ into the framework, giving further insight into how businesses and others feel about their interactions with universities. Of course, this is considerably easier to say than to do. Even a relatively simple interaction (say, a small piece of consultancy providing some analytical support in response to an SME enquiry) involves multiple actors (the initial point of enquiry, an academic staff member, business development manager, contracts office etc.) Serious consideration would have to be given to questions such as who to ask, sampling methodologies, what questions to ask, how to interpret the feedback and the costs of doing this vs. the benefit.
We will also investigate the suitability and robustness of proxies (such as levels of repeat business, not currently captured in the HE-BCI survey) as a potentially lower cost/burden way of gaining further insights into performance, as well as the potential to undertake further data linking (for example of patenting or spin-out activity), to provide a richer story of university strengths and track record.
Secondly, on the point of businesses seeking individual experts who can solve their problems, we need to be clear: the KEF will never provide detailed information on this (and nor should it). Instead, we are exploring how KEF information could be presented alongside other existing information, specifically to increase its utility to businesses and other users. For example, one could imagine KEF results being a useful addition to existing data aggregation and brokerage platforms, such as konfer.
Such integration with other data sources could also add rich context to the existing performance data, helping businesses and others make sense of it for their own purposes. The challenge with this is that there is so much data out there, we need to decide what other information would add real value, rather than serving to confuse.
Other points made by businesses include the increasingly multi-faceted nature of relationships that businesses have with universities, encompassing, for example, research, teaching, provision of CPD, co-location and mobility of staff. I feel that because we have encompassed a broad definition of KE for the KEF, that some of these aspects are already captured, but we can do more. This is why that, together with HESA, the higher education data body, we will be initiating a major review of the HE-BCI dataset that provides many of the KEF metrics. I’m interested in many areas, including capturing the nature and development of these strategic relationships (which may appeal more to businesses than income-based metrics alone), but also other topics, such as Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in KE, particularly in enterprise and entrepreneurship, which may speak to CSR agendas in potential partners.
“Whilst we encourage all interested parties to submit a response to our consultation, this won’t be the end of the journey.”
I also want to address the point made on the perceived lower risk of partnering with large institutions with a ‘good reputation’. Through our creation of clusters of ‘KE peer groups’ of similar institutions for the KEF, and our extensive use of normalisation in the metrics, I see it as a great opportunity for small but specialist universities to showcase their particular strengths. Further, we are intending to bring together this information in a single, consistent, easy to use format, with no more emphasis given to the performance of UCL than a small, specialist arts institution.
Of course, if we are to be successful in turning this set of ideas and aspirations into reality, it is essential we continue to engage with businesses and other users. Whilst we encourage all interested parties to submit a response to our consultation, this won’t be the end of the journey. As KE practice and the KEF continues to evolve, and as new metrics and ways of linking our data come on stream, we will need to engage far more with businesses and other stakeholders. To this end, I am looking forward to continued work with NCUB, to ensure we continue to maintain our leading position in KE policy and practice.
The views represented in this blog are those of the author and reflect his experiences and reflections on developing the KEF. Any views expressed do not necessarily reflect the official position of Research England or UK Research and Innovation.