Are we on the verge of truly recognising the value in the doing of stuff?

I know this is going to sound strange and a bit geeky – I’m basically saying I’m excited by metrics and audits! But I believe there is an opportunity for Knowledge Exchange Practitioners to demonstrate the real value our activity brings to a university, the economy and society. It’s so much more than spin outs, IP and income, right?!

The latest UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) framework, the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) is “intended to increase efficiency and effectiveness in the use of public funding for knowledge exchange (KE), to further a culture of continuous improvement in universities by providing a package of support to keep English university knowledge exchange operating at a world class standard. It aims to address the full range of KE activities”. 

It’s all about the words…

For me, the kernel of opportunity comes with a shift from Knowledge Transfer (KT) to KE. Universities are comfortable with KT. It’s core to what we do isn’t it; create knowledge through our Research and transfer it to our students through curricular. In this context KT refers to activity between a university and a client: we provide a product or service to a customer for a fee, creating a transactional relationship built around income. This definition and the way we have historically measured KT may work well for STEM and Business based academic disciplines. I might suggest then that university KT activity has been predominantly driven and understood from within these disciplines. 

Significant academic communities such as Humanities, Social Sciences, Creative and Cultural disciplines can struggle to find a natural synergy between their scholarship, ethos and a need to develop income driven projects to contribute to their university strategy and metrics. Yet if we could only move away from promoting income generation as the main measurement tool and use the KEF to encourage ‘exchange’; working collaboratively with partners to create a tangible value, we might empower even more colleagues to think and do new things. Hey, if we do this we will have moved on from KT to ‘Knowledge Exchange’. 

But we’ll still have to measure something…

In this context ‘value’ might be defined as a measurable output that has a social, economic or environmental impact. ‘Value’ is tricky to measure though; income, spin outs, patents are easy because not only can they be simple(?!) to record and audit, they are easy to understand. So as a community of KE Practitioners we need to establish methods by which we can measure and articulate created ‘value’ from KE and then lobby hard, both within our institutions and URKI to ensure the KEF doesn’t become about widgets and GVA.

The door has been opened with the metrics that will drive the KEF, yes of course the stuff Ministers understand are still there; income, IP commercialisation, local growth and regeneration, and these are all important. But I’m more interested in the opportunities to develop an even more powerful, and evidenced narrative around the impact we have on society and the economy through the other ‘KEF perspectives’ such as; partnerships, working with public and third sector, skills, public engagement and my favourite, enterprise and entrepreneurship – there’s so much to say here!

By encouraging and measuring our academic endeavours through the lense of these ‘perspectives’ we might not only see additional value added to our student experience, but also create and nurture a vibrant entrepreneurial culture within our staff, and an enhanced external profile. The other metrics will benefit too; a more collaborative approach will establish stronger partnerships that have scope for repeat collaborations and therefore more sustainable income streams. Yes we’ve always reported activity against these metrics through the Higher Education Business & Community Interaction survey (HE-BCI), but the framework presents the opportunity to bring the numbers to life. 

So why get excited?

Thinking and doing new things, creativity and innovation are cornerstones of academic scholarship; creation of new knowledge and its application is what higher education is all about. The higher education sector, driven by government policy and the steady metrification of HE, has been encouraged to break its activity down into component parts; employability, research, innovation, teaching, global engagement, the list goes on. The consequences of this is that the synergies and opportunities have been hard to capitalise on, and in some cases lost.

My hope is that by shifting the focus back from hard fiscally driven metrics and recognising a broader value creation model, we as Knowledge Exchange Practitioners can encourage and support an academically led entrepreneurial culture and capture the broader value that we know our academic endeavour creates, through the KEF we can reconnect the cogs of the KE machine.

Understandably this first iteration of the KEF relies on the old world in terms of language and metrics. UKRIs ‘Decisions for the first iteration’ published three weeks ago reads as if it were a Knowledge Transfer Framework, but our opportunity is there nonetheless. There’s a lot to do of course, but I’m genuinely excited by what the KEF brings universities. It gives a platform to demonstrate the fantastic ways we are getting on and doing stuff that creates and shares knowledge across society as well as the economy. 

I think it’s on us, the KE community to articulate the broader value creation from our work so that we can make KEF2.0 the best it can be. I for one am keen to give it a go.