Doing better knowledge exchange

In tough funding times Government understandably asks us – are we doing well enough? Are we maximising impacts of funding? Are we being efficient and effective in use of public money?

We in turn ask universities similar questions. What is the return they are delivering from our funding for knowledge exchange through HEIF? Are they seeking optimal synergies between knowledge exchange and wider drivers such as research impact and student employability; and with other sources of national and regional or local KE support? Are universities gaining feedback from external partners and addressing this in future developments? Have they put in place the long-term strategies, structures and people to deliver public benefits and sustainable approaches? Have universities overall embedded a culture of continuous improvement in knowledge exchange to learn from success and failure and do better?

We have stressed the importance of a commitment to continuous improvement in knowledge exchange from the outset of our funding. In analysing HEIF 4 strategies in 2008, for example, we stressed the importance of sharing good practice, intra-institutional collaboration, monitoring, customer feedback and evaluation. While benchmarking is an important tool in improvement, we noted then the importance of broader outcomes assessments – ‘that need to be ‘owned’ at the strategic level, to influence not only the offer to users but also the overall direction of the institution’.

As we have moved to a formula approach to allocating HEIF, more of the responsibility for continuous improvement must rest with universities themselves. However, we will always evaluate our funding and policy approaches (as we did in 2015) and work with the HE sector to address opportunities and challenges.

Performance framework

The Government has given further impetus to the continuous improvement agenda by charging us in the 2014 Science and Innovation Strategy to deliver a ‘KE performance framework’. The aims of the framework are to ensure that we are using public money for KE efficiently and effectively, and to further the continuous improvement agenda within universities.

We have work in train to develop the framework in conjunction with HE sector bodies – Universities UK, Praxisunico and AURIL. We have appointed Research Consulting to consider availability of good/effective practice materials in KE, and IP Pragmatics to look at tools for benchmarking. The KE framework is intended to support university senior management in determining institutional strategy and priorities, as well as university KE professional practitioners in their operational activities.

The KE framework will address all the forms of KE that we support under HEIF – from technology transfer and research collaboration, to academic and student enterprise and skills, through to the local anchor role of universities, networking and sharing physical infrastructure. However, we are immediately putting particular focus on the handling of intellectual property rights in knowledge exchange. This is only a small part of knowledge exchange, but highlighted particularly in recent reviews such as the Dowling report.

The McMillan group

To demonstrate our commitment to the continuous improvements agenda, we have asked Professor Trevor McMillan, the Vice-Chancellor of Keele University, to act as our KE Framework champion.

The champion’s role will be:

  • to oversee that we are pursuing this agenda vigorously and not ducking difficult challenges
  • to oversee that, working with HE sector bodies, we are producing materials and advice that are high quality and add value to work of universities
  • to communicate to Government, other funders and stakeholders, the importance we all attach to the agenda and the seriousness with which we will pursue it.

As a first step, Professor McMillan has asked us to convene a task and finish group that he will chair to undertake a deep dive investigation of effective practices in university technology transfer. This includes licensing of university-owned intellectual property rights and the formation of spin-out companies.

The group will involve university senior managers and technical experts, as well as key working partners, such as investors. We will take account of leading-edge overseas exemplars, notably from America. The group will particularly consider the support and incentives given for academic-entrepreneurs to deliver economic and societal impacts through technology transfer.

We look forward to working with Professor McMillan and a wide range of university experts to deliver better knowledge exchange in universities in future.