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Is bigger really better? GuildHE launch new report on the impact of knowledge exchange at smaller and specialist institutions

  • 21 September 2023
  • By Dana Gamble
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Dana Gamble, Policy Manager at GuildHE.
  • You can read the report discussed in this blog here.
  • For information about the events that HEPI is hosting at the forthcoming party conferences, see our Events page. These are open to all and outside the secure zones – meaning you do not need a conference pass to attend them.

Smaller and specialist universities miss out on vital flexible and sustainable funding to forge and nurture partnerships with local and global businesses, communities, councils, charities and the general public. Today, GuildHE has launched a new report, Expertise in Action: the real-world impact of knowledge exchange funding at smaller and specialist institutions, which tackles the imbalances in the funding system that reward size. It also evidences the impact made by smaller, specialist and practice-based institutions who received short-term single-year knowledge exchange grants released by Research England in 2021 and 2022.

For universities that do not receive flexible funding, the Higher Education Investment Fund (HEIF) received a grant of around £200,000 in 2021 to use on knowledge exchange partnerships as part of UKRI’s interventions to build back better in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was a welcome recognition of the importance of this activity for economic growth in this country, including at providers that did not return over the threshold for HEIF funding. This grant was repeated in 2022 at just below the same figure. Despite the challenges with short-term, stop-start funding, we took this as an opportunity to ensure we measured how institutions managed and invested this funding, and what impact it made on their connections with business, on their communities, places and project outcomes.

GuildHE commissioned independent researcher James Ransom to evidence and evaluate both the projects that institutions funded with these grants and the effect it had on the governance and management of KE internally. This evidence is presented through 10 case studies as well as a simple model of the stages these providers went through to strategise, operationalise and administer their projects, and where the barriers lie.

Additionally, the report includes an experimental analysis of the HEIF funding formula. All institutions ‘ income reported through the Higher Education Business Community Interaction Survey (HE-BCIS), run by HESA, is adjusted to consider size. When the size of an institution is taken into account this way, smaller and specialist institutions see significant jumps in their return on investment and effectiveness, compared to larger providers. Through this lens, the performance of these institutions looks good, in many cases excellent.

What did we learn? First, smaller and specialist institutions are critical for economic growth. Their knowledge exchange activity is essential to meet growth ambitions across the whole country. These institutions “punch above their weight” when engaging with businesses and communities relative to their size, and in some cases, could be the key to unlocking new opportunities for connected industrial growth in disadvantaged towns, regions and cities. They are often located in areas and sectors that are underserved by public investment and therefore it is recommended that implications on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion are seriously considered to ensure funding is fair and equitable.

Second, funding this activity leads to transformative impact. The short-term knowledge exchange funding enabled institutions to leverage their deep expertise to create social impact through a diverse range of initiatives. The funding facilitated the development of sustainable projects, external engagement infrastructure, capacity-building and time that led to increased income. This paved the way for further collaboration and additional funding opportunities. The report recommends that the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) and the Department for Levelling Up and Housing (DLUCH) work with GuildHE and others to recognise the contributions of smaller and specialist institutions and broaden and connect government priorities.

Not surprisingly, the drop-off of this funding has long-term risks. Without predictable funding, institutions will lose the benefits of long-term collaborations, hindering the longevity of partnerships and constraining networks and projects that have already shown transformative impact. That means there is a clear need for a sustainable funding model.  A secure and sustainable funding stream is recommended to expand projects, build staff capacity, develop long-term partnerships, formulate effective strategies, and promote public engagement, innovation, and place-making.

And above all, size does not equate to effectiveness, the government and UKRI need to reconsider the notion of “effectiveness” in awarding knowledge exchange funding. There is a bias inherent in the HEIF threshold which rewards size, not necessarily effectiveness. These recommendations aim to support a fairer, more sustained and effective funding system for research and innovation in the UK that captures the disciplines, sectors and places that can boost growth and realise the government’s aims for our society.

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