Today Research England have launched the second round of consultation on the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). The aspiration for this third form of excellence framework (in addition to the longstanding Research Excellence Framework and the more recent Teaching Excellence Framework) was raised by Jo Johnson in October 2017 and forms part of the Industrial Strategy. It is all too easy to scoff at the introduction of yet another excellence framework, and on its launch, it was met with much derision and accusations of additional unnecessary bureaucracy.
However, the Knowledge Exchange Framework is endeavouring to do something which is becoming only increasingly necessary. The two aims of the KEF are:
- To provide universities with a useful source of information and data on their knowledge exchange activities, for the purposes of understanding, benchmarking and improving their own performance.
- To provide businesses and other users (and potential users) of higher education institutions knowledge with another source of information, which may increase visibility of potential university partners and their strengths and contribute to their internal decision-making processes.
Critics of the Knowledge Exchange Framework state that it is just a rebranding of existing activity. Universities already annually return the Higher Education Business and Communities Interaction (HE-BCI) survey and the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) exists to support knowledge exchange. However, this only goes towards the first aim, while not having sufficient prominence to meet the second. If implemented correctly, the Knowledge Exchange Framework could provide a basis to even go beyond the second aim, helping politicians and the general public better understand the impact of universities on wider society.
It’s a particularly important time for universities to be clear about their broader benefits. Leaks from the Augar review have suggested it is likely to recommend a reduction in the headline fee. If this cut is implemented universities will have to find places to make savings, and one of the first areas that could be hit is activities relating to knowledge exchange and their role in local communities. While the Knowledge Exchange Framework won’t be rolled out across all universities until the Augar review has concluded, it may be some time before any changes to funding are implemented given the current unstable political environment. It could be critical therefore that universities have a simple and digestible way to demonstrate this wider activity.
Implementing new measures and conducting consultations in the higher education sector can be challenging. I say this as someone who used to lead on development, implementation and analysis of consultations (on data requirements during my time at HESA). There are always a wide range of stakeholders, given the diversity of universities and the need to include other sector bodies, government and in this case, business. This is combined with universities are large organisations that do not necessarily speak with one voice: if you ask two people within a university for their feedback you could easily get two views. There is also always pressure to conclude and implement quickly, particularly when there is ministerial influence. In this case this policy may be benefiting from the recent high turnover of university ministers.
Despite these challenges, today’s consultation on the Knowledge Exchange Framework shows best practice in policy making and implementation. It is:
- Transparent – detailed responses to the first round of consultation have been published and Research England have committed to the same approach to this consultation as well as publishing the detail of their workings on development of the clusters.
- Taking a deliberative approach – following this second round of consultation, there are plans to pilot, before then developing the final design. While this means we may be waiting a while to see the Knowledge Exchange Framework in practice, it appears the model is genuinely being developed based on feedback.
- Taking advice – as well as running open consultations Research England are taking advice from a senior steering group and a more technical advisory group.
- Seeking to understand perverse incentives created by a new framework – the consultation recognises that the implementation could lead to perverse incentives in both the metrics used and the potential of linking funding to the result and is taking steps to avoid this in both cases.
- Recognising burden – there is always a balance to be struck between the use of metrics and use of case studies in terms of the burden levels of each process. Acknowledging that the existence of the Knowledge Exchange Framework increases burden on universities, the consultation proposes a metrics-based approach, supplemented by narrative statements where existing metrics do not fully describe the activity undertaken.
- Recognising diversity of sector – the non-hierarchical cluster approach taken means universities are grouped ‘based on their assets and capabilities to undertake knowledge exchange’. This method of ensuring universities are benchmarked against their peers is a step on from the often-outdated comparisons between mission groups. This approach could and should be applied to future implementations of government policy to help us represent the breadth of the sector.
There is also detail included in the consultation about onward usage of the data, which specifies that the framework will not result in one score for universities, but instead will demonstrate how they are benchmark for different activities within their cluster. Although this approach is wisely nuanced, it may limit the ability for the wider public to understand the results, something Research England will have to consider in publication of the Knowledge Exchange Framework results.
There is still a long way to go on the Knowledge Exchange Framework, and it’s is worth noting that today’s publication contains no commitment to exactly when it will come into effect. Nonetheless Research England should be patting themselves on the back about managing to tick two important and hard to achieve areas in policy making and implementation: tackling an important issue and taking a thoughtful and deliberate approach in doing so.