Strategies for university knowledge exchange

Contributed by James Fisk, Business Engagement, Birkbeck.

Knowledge Exchange, sometimes also known as Universities ‘3rd Mission’, is the process in which the exchange of ideas, research results, technology and skills between higher education institutions (HEIs), other research organisations and businesses, the public sector and the wider community takes place. It is widely regarded as the third component in a triumvirate of priorities for Higher Education, also consisting of Teaching and Research, with its aim being to reconcile the productive forces of higher education with the world outside it. Whilst a broad definition of knowledge exchange is fairly clear, understanding how it works in practice and how it should be effected, is a far more nuanced and complex challenge.

Indeed, the wide variety of panellists and attendees at the workshop provided an indication as to the breadth of the debate. The panel, comprising Kellogg College Oxford Visiting Fellow Jeremy Howell, Stanford Professor Henry Etzkowitz (also Birkbeck visiting professor), HEFCE’s Senior Policy Advisor Adrian Day, Birkbeck’s Dr Pierre Nadeau and UniversitiesUK Policy Analyst Martina Tortis, took the diversity of the sector as one of its chief considerations. In a sector comprised of markedly different institutions, the question of strategy and collaboration is one that looms large.

Of course, the most appropriate strategy would be one tied to the characteristics of the institution, one that acknowledges specific strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncratic factors in its composition. However, if there are undoubtedly aspects of knowledge exchange that resist comparison and, which cannot be translated easily, how are we to construct a strategy for moving the sector forward?

Academics, professionals and policymakers come together to discuss what a successful knowledge exchange model looks like

Birkbeck’s Dr Federica Rossi, along with Marti Sagarra from the University of Girona and Eva de la Torre from the Universitat Autonoma de Madrid, offered some key insights as to how we can begin to map such diverse and varied engagement across institutions. Their application of a nonparametric technique, Ordinal Multidimensional Scaling, allowed them to not only give a holistic picture of the strategies and activities of UK higher education institutions, but crucially, to consider how knowledge exchange infrastructure correlates to the objectives, strategies and characteristics of institutions.

Talks from Rosa Fernandez (National Centre for Universities and Business) and Adrian Day (HEFCE) provided further perspective on the issue of Knowledge Exchange, as they considered how it can be made equitable and scalable in such a varied sector. Their work explored how growth in knowledge exchange is rather tied to the strategic breadth of exchange activities and commitment of resources, rather than just institutional size itself. Therefore, a small institution with a commitment to Knowledge Exchange can see sustained growth in its impact, whilst larger institutions without specific consideration for KE can experience stasis or decline in their performance.

With many more perspectives coming from a range of academics and policymakers, from discussion of the Biomedical ‘Golden Research Triangle’ of London and the South East, to a study of organisational models in British Universities, it’s clear that Knowledge Exchange has an important role to play not only in the future development of Universities, but in constructing a future for the world outside it.

You can find out about future events on the CIMR website. Those wishing to know more about knowledge exchange may find HEFCE’s guide informative.

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