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29th March, 2021

Building a better future through Knowledge Exchange



Matthew Guest

With the combined effects of the pandemic and climate emergency, the country and the world is undergoing the biggest shock since the Second World War. But we stand at a point where we can “build back better” through a green revolution. And it will be essential that universities and higher education, together with the creative sector, support and facilitate this recovery. How will they do it? 

Knowledge Exchange has to be part of the answer. In this blog, I’ll look at the role of Knowledge Exchange policy now and in the future. 

Knowledge Exchange does not exist in a vacuum 

Knowledge Exchange has never existed in a vacuum – by its very nature it focuses on the relationships between people – and through them their organisations, businesses and communities. This is especially clear within the arts where practitioners move between academia and industry on a frequent, even daily, basis, transfusing their knowledge and practice as they do so. But it hasn’t always had government interest. 

That changed following the Brexit vote in 2016 and the launch of the UK’s (now archived) 2017 Industrial Strategy. Within it, both the creative sector and Knowledge Exchange in particular was positioned as a way to generate economic growth both for localities and the wider UK. This has seen increased investment through the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) and the launch of Industrial Strategy Challenge funds, including the AHRC’s Creative Clusters programme. 

To reflect this interest, there has also been a growing amount of policy churn directly related to Knowledge Exchange, including the introduction of the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) by UKRI and the higher education sector-led Knowledge Exchange Concordat. At the same time, a review of the Higher Education Business Community Interaction Survey (HE-BCI) is underway (which provides a lot of the data for the KEF) and a “radical review” of HEIF is about to launch. 

The Research & Development Roadmap

Boris Johnson became PM in 2019, and one of his major focuses (inspired by his then chief advisor Dominic Cummings) is to develop the UK into a “science superpower”. In July 2020 the publication of the Research and Development Roadmap identified the following aims: 

  • Raising our research ambitions 
  • Inspiring and enabling talented people and teams 
  • Driving up innovation and productivity 
  • Levelling up R&D across the UK 
  • Being at the forefront of global collaboration 
  • Developing world-leading infrastructure and institutions 
  • Ensuring a healthy R&D system

It’s clear from even a brief glance at this list that Knowledge Exchange will play a key role in delivering on the Roadmap’s plans. Importantly, the Roadmap emphasises that future plans are not all just about tech, stating: “All academic disciplines contribute to the vigour of the research endeavour, including the natural sciences, technologies, medicine, the social sciences, the arts and the humanities. Research and experimental development (R&D) comprise creative and systematic work undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge – including knowledge of humankind, culture and society – and to devise new applications of available knowledge.” This is a really important statement because it reaffirms the arts place in the world of research and development. 

Boldly going into the future 

So what does all this mean for the future of Knowledge Exchange? Well, Build Back Better: Our Plan for Growth was published by the Treasury in the March 2021 Budget (replacing the Industrial Strategy) gives some indicators. 

  1. The challenge of “levelling up” will remain. One thing the pandemic has revealed is the starkness of inequalities that exist and are growing in the UK. It is likely that, no matter which party governs, that there will be an increased focus on how to “level up” the economy and all regions of the country. We might see the launch of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the long-heralded replacement to the EU’s regional development funding, which the Budget teased this with the announcement of the UK Community Renewal Fund. This complements the announced, England-only, Levelling Up and Towns Funds. This increased focus is likely to exert greater pressure for universities to understand an increasingly complex funding landscape and work with other regional actors such as colleges, businesses or charities, to generate social, cultural and economic recovery and growth. 

Arts and creative sectors will need to take advantage of this agenda. There is some government interest in this. The Levelling Up Fund in particular highlights cultural projects as something that it would support. And the Budget committed £18.8 million for local cultural infrastructure projects in Carlisle, Hartlepool, Wakefield and Yeovil.

  1. There is increased interest in innovation if not yet funding for innovation and  KE. Government has continued to emphasise its commitment to raising the level of investment in R&D to 2.4% of the nation’s GDP. The Budget also points to (another) new Innovation Strategy, although that is more likely to look at sorting out regulation rather than new funding (think R&D tax credits for example). Government is certainly talking the talk about the importance of R&D even if it is not walking the walk. Future funding may come through funding formulae such as HEIF and QR but it is increasingly likely that it will be through competitions targeting delivering government goals. Maybe there will be such funding linked to the Culture Recovery Fund that focuses on R&D and innovation in the creative industries (something the Creative Industries Federation is arguing for). That funding would, though, come with strings attached to support economic and social recovery from Covid-19. 
  2. KE funding and measurement will likely become streamlined. By 2024 it is likely that the various parts of the KE system – the review of HE-BCI, the “radical review” of HEIF, the second version of KEF, and progress on the KE Concordat – will merge into a more unified package. This means that receiving core KE funding will likely become dependent upon signing up to the sector-led KE Concordat and taking part in the KEF, which will replace HEIF as the accountability measure for KE. And this simplification could be something that helps the arts and cultural activity to shine. 

Metrics and reporting provide challenges, not least for creative and cultural work that delivers benefits in different ways to a simple, large financial figure. So we will need to think of different, powerful ways of telling our success stories both through our reporting mechanisms and also our wider communications – my latest journal article has some thoughts on how to use heatmapping as a technique to do this and we’ll shortly be launching the accompanying report at GuildHE. 

Concluding comment

Suffice to say all policy, including that related to Knowledge Exchange, is undergoing huge changes and there’s more to come. Knowledge Exchange has proved its worth too, given the roles that universities have played in vaccine developments and in providing practical support for their communities. I think the role of knowledge brokers who can work across all disciplines and in all nations and regions of the UK will be crucial as we build a green social, cultural and economic recovery from the pandemic. There will be lots to play for in the Autumn 2021 Government Spending Review.

Matthew Guest is a Policy Manager for GuildHE, the representative body for smaller and specialist universities and colleges. He focuses on research, knowledge exchange, skills, place and Brexit and has worked in the charities and universities sectors. Matthew holds an MSc in Voluntary Sector Management and an MA in Classics.


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