When the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) was first floated a few years ago, the government noted that the UK could do much more to capitalise on university-driven innovation, in collaboration with industry.
Nearly four years later, and the first iteration of the KEF seems to suggest this trend is in decline, with collaboration with industry becoming more of a core focus within higher education. The framework has enabled institutions to benchmark, and contextualise, the economic value created within the UK through university-industry partnerships and the real societal impact they are having across the country.
The framework ultimately aims to increase the effectiveness of higher education public funds in serving the UK’s economy and society, so that research can become more translational and have a direct impact on people and business.
As a result, the KEF is encouraging greater collaboration between academics and industry, and it could even help to reduce some of the stigma associated with these types of partnerships – that they are somehow less valuable or noble than research undertaken at a purely academic level.
University-industry partnerships are essential, as they can help address some of the grand challenges facing our daily lives. Teesside University’s National Horizons Centre (NHC) was founded with these types of partnership at its core, and this is reflected in our own KEF scores: in the top 10% for ‘skills, enterprise and entrepreneurship’, and the top 20% for ‘working with business’ and ‘local growth and regeneration’.
We will be working with partners to support the major levelling up developments within the region, including the freeport plans, the Darlington location for HM Treasury and Department for International Trade, and a Net-Zero Industry Innovation Centre to align with the region’s decarbonisation agenda
Our aim is to bring together industry, academia, talent and facilities to drive bioscience innovations. The potential impact of these national and international collaborations is what attracted me to the role of director. Together, we’re helping to discover diseases earlier, develop new treatments and bring vital medicines to market quickly and safely, by bridging the gap between education and industry.
The Northern Bio-Accelerator Partnership (NBioP), in conjunction with innovation centre CPI and pharmaceutical manufacturer FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies, is a prime example. The NBioP acts as a biosciences hub for the north-east of England, creating tools and technologies for biomanufacturing, training the next generation of talent and enabling businesses to have a real-world impact through new biopharmaceutical developments.
By combining academic research, workforce development and manufacturing, we can ultimately improve people’s quality of life – knowledge exchange in action.
Given the current momentum behind ‘levelling up’, the importance of knowledge exchange cannot be underestimated when it comes to supporting local growth, investment, employment and up-skill opportunities as the UK rebuilds post-Covid.
At Teesside University, for example, we will be working with partners to support the major levelling up developments within the region, including the freeport plans, the Darlington location for HM Treasury and Department for International Trade, and a Net-Zero Industry Innovation Centre to align with the region’s decarbonisation agenda.
Having a framework to bench this activity against should help institutions better understand our own performance, identifying strengths and weaknesses in comparison to our peers. The first iteration of the KEF has been meticulously measured, moving away from old-school league tables to a framework that recognises the varied and nuanced types of knowledge exchange being undertaken across the country.
The call for ‘narrative statements’, which allowed universities to set out, in detail, our role in supporting local growth and communities, was also a welcome step in the right direction. It enables us to add context to the research and work that fill our days and discuss the direct impact it is having at a local, national and international level.
The KEF should also increase public visibility and accountability of how and where universities spend funds and give us a platform to demonstrate the value we have outside of the hallowed walls of higher education. Demystifying how research directly impacts our daily lives can only be a good thing, and hopefully, inspire collaborations with future industry partners.
Of course, the KEF was first touted in the old world, before Covid-19 was a household name. The framework has been released over a year into this new way of living and working, and there are some interesting parallels between vaccine development and the university-industry partnerships that the KEF seeks to measure.
Whilst access to funding was of course vital to the creation of effective vaccines, partnerships with industry giants, such as AstraZeneca in Oxford University’s case, helped the development and swift production of millions of doses, in a relatively short space of time. The sheer speed at which they have been brought to market is a reflection of research that has been conducted within industry timelines and has the support of global manufacturing infrastructures behind it.
This is a symbiotic relationship too – just as the knowledge exchange relationship benefits universities, so too can industry benefit from the expertise and resource of an educational partner. The NHC itself has developed programmes to provide vaccine manufacturers with vital training and resource within our state-of-the-art facilities, focused on upskilling the workforce in the latest biologic developments and supporting vaccine manufacture and deployment.
Ultimately, if a university and industry partner have a true shared goal and the drive to collaboratively solve it, be that creating a new treatment for Alzheimer’s, a new vaccine or upskilling part of a workforce, that’s when our work has a true impact on our communities. This is where the KEF’s value lies, in encouraging more of these collaborations across every aspect of academia.
Dr Jen Vanderhoven is the director of Teesside University’s National Horizons Centre (NHC), responsible for leading the NHC’s development as a centre of excellence for the biosciences sector.