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Society and communities

Beyond impact

Universities are being asked to think about how they evaluate and communicate their third mission: the exchange of knowledge with the wider world.

You’re probably familiar with the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). However, you’re probably less well-versed on the forthcoming Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). It is intended to provide more information on how effectively universities are discharging their ‘third mission’ – exchanging their knowledge with the wider world, and in turn receive inspiration back.

It is fair to say that when the then Universities and Science Minister for England Jo Johnson announced his intention to introduce a KEF the response on social media was somewhat mixed (read overwhelmingly negative). Rumours abounded that it would focus purely on research commercialisation, or impose an extra burden. However, Research England’s call for evidence revealed that most respondents were cautiously welcoming: done right, this could support parity of esteem with research and teaching. And anything that allows universities to respond to the media’s narrative should be welcomed.

The performance of UK universities in knowledge exchange is to be celebrated: income from KE has increased year-on year to reach more than £4.2bn in 2016/17, spin-out and start-up companies attract vast external investment and have created 50,000-plus jobs. Yet more benefit from the ‘anchoring’ role that many universities play in their communities. This is all KE, and will all feature in the KEF.

This vital role of universities is recognised by government, with a commitment to raise Research England’s Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) to £250m a year by 2020/21. And there is recognition of the role that universities can play in delivering the UK Industrial Strategy and target to boost investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP.

KEF, however, is not all about assessment of outcomes. Part of the wider KEF is the work that Professor Trevor McMillan of the Research England KE steering group is undertaking with Universities UK on a proposed concordat for KE. This is a vital pillar of work that will tackle areas metrics can’t reach, such as institutional commitment.

Knowledge exchange encompasses activities across a diverse sector and comparing everyone to everyone is unlikely to produce a useful framework. We have therefore undertaken work to create clusters of ‘KE peer groups’. Institutions will be compared to the average performance of their cluster, rather than to every other university. The question the KEF therefore seeks to answer is: “How effectively is a university at translating its assets and capabilities into tangible outcomes that benefit the economy and society?”

We envisage the KEF as an annual, metrics-driven assessment, grouped under various ‘perspectives’. Some of these perspectives (like the role of universities in their local area) are poorly served by existing metrics and we therefore propose to supplement these perspectives with a templated narrative statement.

In developing the KEF I have taken a positive, broad view of KE, measured in a fair way. I hope it will not just be a useful tool for universities to understand and improve performance, but a useful resource to communicate the value universities deliver to the economy and society. By the time you’re reading this, Research England should have launched the consultation. I look forward to reading your responses.

Hamish McAlpine

Hamish is Head of Knowledge Exchange (KE) Data and Evidence at Research England and responsible for delivering the KEF metrics framework.

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