Students making a positive impact on the economy and society through their curriculum learning - what’s not to like? In fact, how can we have more and better?
Creative Students Creating Business (CSCB) is an Office for Students/UK Research & Innovation (OfS/UKRI) funded project that sets out to do just that, through creating a toolkit for Higher Education to enhance Student Engagement in Knowledge Exchange (SEKE). I’m delighted to be leading the project and the underpinning research.
So what is KE?
We know from a recent University survey consulting on the Knowledge Exchange Concordat, that KE is considered important but not well understood by students. So perhaps it behoves me to elucidate the term ‘Knowledge Exchange’ itself.
Knowledge Exchange is the range of activities - the dialogue, sharing and creation - that we conduct as academics and students with external organisations that add economic and social value. They are the mainstay of our collaborative culture of learning with businesses, third sector organisations and charities.
There are some 35 recognised types of KE activity (according to Tom Ulrichsen, Director, Policy Evidence Unit for University Commercialisation and Innovation at University of Cambridge). They do not solely constitute the commercialisation of research as once was the focus. They are an array of public space/people-based activities such as networks and advisory boards, community-based activities such as exhibitions and performing arts and problem solving activity, such as consultancy, prototyping and testing. Many of these activities have been captured in the diagram below in one of the early policy unit surveys often referred to and show engagement of universities back in 2008.
Figure 1: Academic engagement in different types of knowledge exchange mechanisms | Source: PACEC/CBR (2014) Strengthening the Contribution of HEIs to the Innovation System, a report to the EU
So why KE?
It is extremely timely that we should be focusing more on KE. As can be seen, it is a surprisingly broad array of activity that has only recently received sector leadership through the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) launched in 2020. This monitors intensity and approach in KE within similar clusters of universities. KEF has been quickly followed by the good practice guidance of the KE Concordat distilled from research. The field of Knowledge Transfer and KE has long sought to understand optimal arrangements of strategy, people, activities and resources that provide effective means of sharing knowledge across university boundaries and that create measurable positive social and economic impacts. Whilst there are debates over the purpose of Universities in society, it is clear from KEF and the related funding call for our project, that students should be considered more central to KE activities. Rather than solely contributing to society and the economy when they graduate, they can make a positive difference through their learning experiences whilst at university.
So why focus on student engagement in Knowledge Exchange (SEKE)?
Our funders are keen to understand the impacts of funding KE that involves students. Formerly the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), offered by Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), did not explicitly track students. However, a split of HEFCE in 2018 into OfS and UKRI means that both agencies are now interested in student participation and have funded 20 projects across the UK to stimulate activity and understand it better. In addition, the University and each SEKE project stakeholder stand to benefit from successful SEKE projects. That could be through improved employability for students, enhanced products and services for organisations or more effective relations for future KE for academics. It is the virtuous, mutual relationships and good practice that drive those benefits that we want to reveal through the research.
Which bit of KE are you looking at?
In the CSCB project we are focusing on the KE activity of ‘live client’ projects. These are projects where students have had reciprocal engagement with an external collaborator. In the past 18 months almost 2000 students have taken part in SEKE activity across the two main faculties in the University participating in the CSCB project - Creative and Cultural Industries (CCI), and Business and Law (BaL). Projects have taken place throughout the pandemic, both online and in person, where students working on their own or as part of a team have created and shared a range of outputs for clients. These include marketing plans, architectural designs, tax plans and legal advice, and created as part of their curriculum.
So why research SEKE? Why not simply improve our activities as a part of our efforts of continuous improvement and ongoing quality assurance in our modules and courses?
We are seeking a strong evidence base. Whilst University data and student feedback helps to a point, ethical approval for new research questions allows opportunities for us to explore the subject in new ways. We can publish our findings to wider audiences and it assures anonymity for respondents. We think it’s worth the extra effort to explore and capture respondent views in this way.
We are currently examining 30 SEKE projects through in-depth interviews with graduates, students, lecturers and external organisations. We wish to find out what makes them work and what could be improved, the factors of success and the benefits that have been achieved. These results feed into broader surveys of a further 70 student projects, 100 in total across the University.
It is clear that the climate in which SEKE projects take place is vital for them to succeed, so we are exploring insights from the senior management team at the University. Our aim here is to understand the barriers and enablers to this type of learning. We hope to find out opinions on our KE strategy, the role of students and whether we think we have the right resources and ways of working to capitalise on SEKE’s potential. Alongside this, we have conducted a comprehensive systematic literature review of SEKE for practical guidance on factors of success.
So how does this drive improvement?
This all feeds back into our new toolkit that shares good practice found in the research and addresses better practice that is needed where there are perceived gaps. Already we can see that some students struggle with the complexity of projects and that they consider relationships external to the University valuable but challenging. Some students find the UK work environment presents a new cultural challenge that needs rapid assimilation and often collaboration in a team can be enhanced. Findings such as these help us to focus on developing practical solutions that we can share across the Higher Education Sector, work which we are disseminating over the next few months through showcasing the toolkit and the research findings.