Research England publishes first Knowledge Exchange Framework

The KEF “demonstrates the unique role of England’s higher education institutions”, says science minister Amanda Solloway

Research England has published the first Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), which quantifies how universities benefit the British economy and society.

Plans for the KEF were first detailed in a November 2017 ministerial letter from then-universities minister Jo Johnson to Research England executive chair David Sweeney.

The KEF shows the contribution of English higher education providers (HEPs) from seven different perspectives: research partnerships, working with business, working with the public and third sector, skills, enterprise and entrepreneurship, local growth and regeneration, IP and commercialisation, and public and community engagement. 

These seven metrics reflect the different ways universities contribute to society. Examples include pioneering research that creates businesses, working alongside NHS trusts to improve healthcare, or bringing investment to a local town and its community. 

The framework puts every university in England into one of eight ‘clusters’, according to size, research output, specialisms and income. Groupings include large, research-intensive universities; small, specialist arts universities and mid-sized teaching-intensive universities. 

The data is viewable on an interactive dashboard, which shows each university’s relative strength within the seven metrics respective to the other universities in its cluster. Each receives a decile score based on the cluster average. This scoring ensures the KEF compares institutions on ‘a like-for-like basis’, Research England said, in the context of their profile and capacity. 

The University of Oxford, for example, performs well compared to the others in its cluster on IP and commercialisation but less well on local regeneration and skills. 

Our world-class universities continue to play a vital role in levelling up opportunities for everyone, and this data from the KEF will empower them to effect real change in their local areas
– Michelle Donelan, universities minister

The different KEF cluster profiles can also be compared against one another. 

For example, universities in cluster V – which includes Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds – make, on average, the most significant contribution through research and IP and commercialisation. On average, these universities contribute less towards local growth and regeneration and skills and entrepreneurship than other universities comparatively. 

Universities in cluster J – which includes Staffordshire, Teesside, Chester and Worcester – have, on average, the most significant impact on local growth and regeneration and public engagement. On average, these universities contribute less through research output and IP and commercialisation than other universities comparatively. 

In his November 2017 letter that commissioned the KEF, Jo Johnson referred to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) and said: “We do not, however, evaluate the contribution our universities make to the exploitation of knowledge.

“As we increase our investment in public research and development to record levels with a view to the UK entering the top quartile of OECD countries for R&D spending as a share of GDP, it will be essential to bridge this gap.”

The data comes from the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey, collected annually by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Research England also collected “narratives provided by the institutions” that detail their work in their terms, as well as data provided by Innovate UK and Elsevier.

The dashboards were co-developed by Jisc Data Analytics

Research England will “review the Knowledge Exchange Framework to inform how it develops in the future”, it said, adding that the KEF, unlike the similarly-named Research Excellence Framework (REF), is not currently used to inform funding decisions. 

David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, said knowledge exchange was “an essential part of [a university] mission alongside research and teaching”. 

“The Knowledge Exchange Framework will help universities understand where their strengths are relative to others with similar missions. It showcases a diverse picture of the tremendous work they do in their places, nationally and internationally,” he added. 

Science minister Amanda Solloway said the KEF “demonstrates the unique role of England’s higher education institutions and provides a mechanism to measure performance and increase collaboration”. She added that universities “have a critical part to play in our efforts to build back better from the pandemic”.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “Our world-class universities continue to play a vital role in levelling up opportunities for everyone, and this data from the KEF will empower them to effect real change in their local areas, identifying skills gaps, and tapping into the brilliant talent that our nation has to offer.”

Dr Hamish McAlpine, head of knowledge exchange data and evidence at Research England, credited Jisc for “developing the final dashboards and associated content in an agile and responsive way”. 

Read more: Skidmore to chair inquiry on university knowledge exchange and ‘levelling-up’

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