First thoughts on the Concordat for the Advancement of Knowledge Exchange

The NCCPE has been reviewing the Concordat for the Advancement of Knowledge Exchange in Higher Education in England. We wanted to share some of our thinking, and invite you to tell us how you are making sense of it.

The draft Concordat is open for consultation and the deadline for responses is 1st July. In summary the Concordat outlines eight principles that universities will be invited to sign up to, and identifies a number of enablers for each. Having signed up, universities will be expected to self-assess themselves against these principles, consider where they have strengths and weaknesses, and then develop an action plan for the future. The idea is that this action plan will then be reviewed by an independent panel, who will provide robust feedback.

The consultation sets out 5 aims for the Concordat, which is designed to:

  • give universities and their staff and students clarity of mission and support their development
  • give partners an accurate representation of the approach that individual universities are taking to KE
  • provide clear indicators of their approaches to performance improvement
  • encourage collaboration between universities
  • give our governing bodies and government broad confidence in the activity that is taking place in universities.

This is complicated by the fact that it is currently unclear how the Concordat will link to the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) and to the allocation of HEIF funding. These are being considered in parallel, and with the KEF itself still in pilot mode, the whole landscape is a little uncertain.

So what are our initial thoughts?

We approach the consultation with confidence that public engagement is now widely understood to be a significant contributor to knowledge exchange. This is exemplified in the KEF where Public and Community Engagement is highlighted as one of seven perspectives, alongside (for instance) Skills and Enterprise. The Concordat aligns with these wider developments in KE policy, framing knowledge exchange as:

'a set of activities, processes and skills that enable close collaboration between universities and non-academic partners to deliver commercial, environmental, cultural and societal benefits, opportunities for students and economic growth'.

So while the Concordat has little to say explicitly about public engagement, it does provide a welcome ‘boost’ to efforts to embed support for high quality public engagement in the sector.  Whilst those of us who champion engagement take its value for granted, it is good to see representatives of the sector making such a firm commitment to the value of this work, to focus it broadly, and emphasise that it is about much more than just commercial impact.

The Concordat is likely to provide a useful framework to support the sector to value and improve its knowledge exchange work, however we do have a few concerns with the current draft, which we will be feeding back later this week:

  • While a number of the principles reinforce what are widely shared focal points for good practice (for instance the need to have clarity of mission; to invest in capacity building and recognition) it could work harder to emphasise the need for reciprocity and responsiveness. In places the tenor is rather ‘top down’ and transactional, for instance potential collaborators are framed as ‘beneficiaries’ of the process. Good practice in KE emphasises how important it is to really understand the needs and interests of potential collaborators – whether as users of universities’ knowledge services, or as partners in co-producing new knowledge
  • Linked to this, we would like to see more being done to realise the promise of the Concordat as a tool to engage partners and provide them with valuable intelligence and insight. For this aim to be realised there needs to be really active involvement of such partners – sooner rather than later. Their insights are critical to ensure that the Concordat reflects the partnerships central to effective KE.
  • We were surprised to see relatively little reference in the Concordat to the increasingly significant drivers around ‘place’ and inequality.  With universities increasingly expected to play their part in addressing inequalities, and to ensure the planned uplift in Research and Innovation funding realises value for all parts of the country and for all citizens, it is important that the Concordat expresses our ambition to work constructively in this space.
  • It would be helpful to know how the principles and enablers were derived. They reflect aspects of the extensive evidence base that has been built up in different KE practice communities, whether in Tech Transfer or Public Engagement.  However, there is a real opportunity to make this important knowledge base accessible as we move into the implementation phase, and to recognise the expertise of the many people working in this area, including Public Engagement Professionals. This is skilled, complex work that requires significant professional expertise.
  • The consultation seems to us to underestimate the time it will take to develop an implementation plan that has the confidence of the sector.  The process they envisage mirrors the work of the NCCPE in supporting public engagement. The enabling mechanisms we have developed include a Manifesto for people to commit to; a range of evidence-based tools e.g. the EDGE tool which enable self-assessment; and a rigorous and collaborative external assessment process, the Watermark.  Developing this infrastructure took time and required careful consultation with the sector, piloting the tools and approaches taken. Currently, there is very little detail about how the infrastructure to support the KE Concordat will be developed, which is concerning, especially as it is proposed that it will be rolled out early next year.

Your views

We would be interested in the comments, questions, and views you have of the current draft Concordat, and how your institution will be responding. Do you share our concerns? How would you like to see this work develop? How do you think it could better incentivise and embed support for public engagement?

Comments

I agree with a number of your key observations:
The emphasis on mutuality in partnership is a bit lost in some parts of the document. It feels this could be strengthened by simply not using a term like 'beneficiaries' as this could be interpreted as a one-way street, when indeed it's a two-way process; by adding that as much as HEIs are open, committed, etc. the same would be expected of partners; by adding something on the way out (under Engagement) as it's currently very focussed on the way in. It's almost as if the lens through which principles are looked at changes from one perspective to another, but rarely does one look through both.
In some parts it feels as if KE is treated as a commodity, as a service. First, I don't think it is a service and second the terminology is heavily biased towards Tech-transfer. How will social and cultural engagement find its place there?
The recognition and reward principle is the Achilles heel of the Concordat. As long as the number one currency in HE are papers and research funding attracted, very few will be convinced that it is a good idea to invest time into KE/Engagement activities. The suggested enabler addressing this is in my view too weak to drive change.
Finally, Principle 8 evaluating success is a real killer in terms of the time and resources it will require to fulfill the reporting requirements. KEF was sold as an easy, metrics-driven framework that would not add a huge amount of burden HEIs stretched resources. That may be so, but clearly the enablers under 'evaluating success' are the reverse of that medal!

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