The KEF 2021 narratives and what they tell us about HEIs’ engagement with the arts and cultural sector

Word Cloud of the words pertaining to the arts and cultural sector.

Higher education institutions (HEIs) engage intensively with the arts and cultural sector. However, evidence about this engagement is very often partial and scattered, which makes it difficult to appraise the real importance of this phenomenon. Lack of systematic evidence also makes it harder for practitioners and academics to advocate for the importance and impact of partnerships and other forms of engagement between HEIs and arts and culture.

In a piece of research that we have conducted for NCACE, Valentina Rizzoli, Emily Hopkins and myself have sought to take advantage of the information available from the 2021 Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) exercise, in order to provide a more comprehensive picture of HEIs’ engagement with the arts and cultural sector. We have analysed in particular the KEF narratives submitted to Research England by 117 HEIs. While the quantitative indicators used in the KEF are not well suited to capture many forms of engagement with the arts and cultural sector, the narratives are a rich and so far under-exploited source of information about how HEIs engage with their stakeholders, and we expected that this would include substantial engagement with the arts and cultural sector

Our analysis combined an automated text analysis of the 117 narratives with an in-depth qualitative thematic analysis of the 20 narratives that mentioned engagement with the arts and cultural sector the most. 

We found that engagement with the arts and cultural sector was mentioned extensively in the KEF narratives, though there were differences across the various sections of the narratives and, more importantly, strong variability across HEIs in terms of the intensity with which such engagement was mentioned. 

Considering the three sections of the narratives separately, we found that, in the Institutional Context sections of the narratives, words mainly referred to artistic and creative subjects and infrastructures, suggesting that the arts and culture were mentioned in relation to their role within the university. In the Local Growth and Regeneration section, words mainly referred to specific creative activities (musicians, performing, studios, textiles, creative economy, creative sector), with a strong emphasis on digital (digital, digital innovation, digital technologies, digital skills, digital industries, digital creative), suggesting that these were considered to play an important role in local growth and regeneration. In the Public and Community Engagement section, the words referred to the activities, events, structures that universities can rely on for their public and community engagement.

In terms of differences across HEIs, we found that, among the twenty HEIs that most frequently used words relating to the arts and cultural sector, 11 were part of the KEF ARTS cluster. By contrast, the HEIs in the KEF STEM cluster discussed the theme of engagement with the arts and cultural sector the least.

Through a qualitative analysis of the twenty KEF narratives that discussed engagement with the arts and culture more intensively, we identified three main areas of engagement:

  • direct support for businesses, including both support for existing businesses and for the creation of new businesses;
  • support that was tailored more towards individuals, both in relation to increasing and widening access to education in the arts and related fields, and in relation to helping facilitate careers in the arts and cultural sector;
  • creating a broader impact on society and the economy through artistic and cultural activities; this was a broad area, comprising all forms of local regeneration activities as well as engagement with any communities outside the HEI.

In the KEF narratives, it was often difficult to disentangle discussion of engagement with the arts and cultural sector from discussion of engagement with the creative industries more generally. However, for all the forms of engagement above, we have been able to identify examples of engagement specifically with the arts and cultural sector.

We also found that HEIs used both internal and external evaluations and use a variety of quantitative and qualitative approaches to evaluate their external engagement. We note that HEIs made a lot of effort to provide quantitative estimates of their impact and to identify appropriate indicators. This effort suggests that HEIs are aware of the value that policymakers place on the provision of quantifiable impact indicators. Some HEIs mentioned that the collection of these indicators was also useful for their internal evaluation of their own activities.

Our analysis allows us to develop some recommendations for policy and practice.

First, HEIs should be encouraged to discuss their engagement with the arts and cultural sector, particularly using their KEF narratives to do so. This would allow HEIs a platform to showcase this form of engagement, which is notably difficult to represent through quantitative indicators and tends to be obscured by other forms of engagement (for example HEIs’ engagement with science and technology, or even engagement with the broader creative industries). 

Second, HEIs should continue to combine narrative descriptions with quantitative indicators in their KEF narratives. While indicators are useful for evaluation purposes, they also necessarily provide only a partial view of the impact of KE. Moreover, the variety of KE activities that HEIs performed when engaging with the arts and cultural sector suggests that it would be inadvisable to ask HEIs to stick to a set of predetermined quantitative indicators.

Third, the evidence collected from the KEF narratives should be used to inform best practice for HEIs seeking for ways to expand their engagement with the arts and cultural sector. For example, case studies of particularly impactful projects mentioned in the narratives could be developed, and examples of particularly innovative initiatives could be collected and profiled for other HEIs to learn from.

Fourth, the rich information in the KEF narratives should be exploited further. For example, the factors that enabled the success of KE with the arts and cultural sector could be investigated, as well as the most frequent organisational forms used for successful projects.

The narratives are yet another useful indicator of the scale and scope of engagement between HEIs and the arts and cultural sector. They show that this engagement occurs through a variety of activities beyond research and teaching, encompassing public engagement, local regeneration, working with various communities, business and career support and development, and many other forms of collaboration.

You can read the full report here.

Image: Word Cloud of the words pertaining to the arts and cultural sector. Dimension of words is proportional to their frequency in the corpus