Mission Clarity in Knowledge Exchange, Keele University

Knowledge exchange is a recognised part of the overall institutional strategy and is valued for the social, cultural and economic outcomes it helps us achieve. We have a clear understanding of the institutional role and the purpose of KE, including the recognition of the needs and interests of potential and current partners and beneficiaries. The Keele Deals – strategic agreements with civic partners to leverage Keele’s expertise, capacity and assets for the benefit of the local area- form a large part of our KE Plan. As a result of the profile given to external engagement we are witnessing a growing appetite within Keele’s academic community to become active in this area.

1. Please provide a brief description of the KE project/ case study and why you believe it is considered good practice or innovative (and for whom). What challenge were you trying to address?

All universities in receipt of HEIF are required to produce a strategy and a plan. What is distinctive about Keele is that early on, we agreed significant deals (4 of them) with our local civic partners, the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and the hospital trusts. These were about acknowledging shared challenges that were aligned to our strengths within the university and the local economy and finding the areas where we could make a difference.

The first deal took 18 months and enabled us to move forward with a number of significant ERDF projects. These were based on an understanding that one of the fundamental weaknesses of the local economy was that it performed very poorly in terms of R&D. So that was one of the areas we sought to address. We also capitalised on a growing recognition and expertise at Keele around various aspects of sustainability and renewable energy on campus. That enabled us to find the connections into UK Government to secure resources to enable the Deal to be agreed.

2. Where did the idea for the project/ programme come from? Was this related to a strategic objective? How did you secure senior buy in?

The Senior Team at Keele recognised the opportunity that the Keele Deals provided us and European and other Local Growth funding, which were used to maximise impacts in the local area. That team knew how to get involved in these programmes and recognised the importance of building partnerships. The Keele Deals may have been the first of their kind in the sector and had a focus on the economy and Net Zero transitions.

3. What impact/ outcome has this project/ activity had on your university? Students? Local economy? Staff? Other external parties, e.g. businesses.

Our clarity of mission has enabled us to position external engagement at the centre of our research and education activities.  Through our programmes, we’ve been successful in placing a high number of  students and graduates with local employers and it’s been very popular with local enterprises where we’ve made over 300 placements. For Keele, one of the most signifcant elements of that programme was experiential learning, and local SMEs realised the benefits of graduate skills.

We’ve also been very impactful in economic terms through our Mercia Centre for Innovation Leadership, which provided six months’ training for SMEs in innovation, funding and finance, HR- It was very successful in directly leading to company growth, generating 310 new jobs and £26m to the local economy.

Finally, our smart energy network demonstrator (SEND) had a transformational strategic impact on the local area. Siemens was a partner and it has led Keele into significant programme delivery using the campus as a demonstrator. We have supported hundreds of local SMEs, and hosted thousands of visitors, including overseas delegations, and this has spawned new collaborations with major industrial players.

4. How did you measure impact?

We have built in a number of mechanisms required for ERDF projects. With Keele deals, we continue to engage at the end of our projects to measure impacts such as the number of jobs etc. At the end of every programme, we commission summative assessments of the project- both qualitative and quantitative. We also regularly conduct an economic impact assessment undertaken which has helped us understand the impact of our programmes. In some programmes, for example SEND, we also monitor behavior change and investment in sustainability by businesses.  

KEF has also enabled us to collectively understand and benchmark ourselves and the KE Concordat process has provided us with an opportunity to take stock.

5. What types of resources were required to implement this project?

All of the Deals to varying degrees have required significant leadership and the first Keele Deal helped us to open the door to further ERDF funding.

With the end of ERDF funding, we are focusing more on larger opportunities and using the relationships we have with SMEs to work with Innovate UK and others.  

6. Describe any challenges that you have had to overcome either before, during or after implementing this project?

Our biggest challenge is that we’re a relatively small university and we have had to focus on building capacity to deliver local impact.  European programmes provided medium to long-term certainty.  We recognise that we still need to support education and research impact via external funding. Opportunities often come with very short notice; however and it can take six months to build  partnerships and projects.

Some academics have found it easy to translate this mission and enhance their research and education through KE. For others, the high-level statements seem remote and difficult to understand. The intermediary steps are not always clear and the sense that this remains a separate third area of activity clearly can persist. Communicating an accessible and useful KE mission for KE in research and education in the context of an ambitious outward-facing strategy will continue to be a key focus for development. 

7. Next steps?

There is a lot going on at the moment. We’re continuing to grow the science and innovation park. We’re focusing on seeking out partners to help, acknowledging they’ll bring with them further opportunities to grow. We don’t yet have an innovation centre with a focus on energy and the environment and that is something that is in the pipeline, and there are some tremendous areas of fundamental and applied science with further potential to benefit businesses and the regional and UK economy, so we’re working with academic leaders to support that.

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