Knowledge exchange has always been at the heart of music conservatoires, but do current metrics accurately reflect the richness of these KE environments?

Knowledge exchange is a term used to describe a variety of activities that creative higher education institutions have been undertaking for a long time. What we may refer to as outreach, business and community engagement, impact, and / or widening participation, falls under this term, defined by UKRI as ‘universities and other higher education institutions exchanging knowledge with the wider world in a way that contributes to society and the economy’(1). These activities are the bread and butter of, for example, a music conservatoire (such as my own institution), where all students share their expertise with the general public, in the form of public performances. Such specialist creative institutions have long offered a variety of events to the local public, schools, businesses and the community, for example through family days, workshops with young people, and performances at various events (from celebrations to funerals, and national public events). Whereas knowledge exchange for some higher education institutions and degree programme disciplines may chiefly reside in academics sharing their research at conferences or public talks, for specialist creative institutions this is only a very small slice of the rich landscape of knowledge exchange happening within, and outside, the building. How many degree disciplines can claim that every single student shares their knowledge with the public regularly during each year of their studies?

There are two ways to conceptualise knowledge exchange, which present various challenges within specialist creative institutions (e.g., a music conservatoire): 1) the knowledge exchange that takes place, e.g., staff sitting on the boards of music charities and hubs, students undertaking work placements where they lead school choirs or bands, performances as part of local, national and international arts festivals, and 2) the knowledge exchange that is captured and reported to regulatory bodies as part of the system of knowledge exchange metrics, such as the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), or the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HEBCI) return. Not all of the knowledge exchange activity which may take place with the very vibrant community of a music conservatoire feeds into these metrics, and hence may go unrecognised in the sector, and in the outcomes of the submission of these statutory returns.

Does the way in which KE activity is measured and rewarded capture the breadth and depth of the knowledge exchange landscape in a small specialist creative institution? The annual HEBCI return involves the submission of two kinds of numbers: 1) income from KE activity, 2) numbers of people (e.g., members of the general public) who have been engaged in free and chargeable events. The main outcome of submission of the HEBCI return is that, providing institutions meet a certain threshold for their qualifying income (which is made up of income from specific categories in the HEBCI submission), they receive Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF). Many of the HEBCI income categories which small specialist creative institutions are extremely strong in, for example, students who are self-employed or freelancers and their ‘small business’ turnover, do not contribute to the HEIF formula, and therefore do not have an impact on funding which institutions receive. Such high level training in freelance skills may be at least partly funded by the institution’s own higher education funding relating to teaching and / or research, and hence this element of a degree programme can contribute to the development and growth of the future music industry. Moreover, HEBCI Table 5, which captures the number of people who have engaged in public events (e.g., audiences for public concerts, listener numbers for public broadcasts of student and staff performances), does not contribute to any of the KE metrics. These Table 5 numbers are often extremely high for creative institutions, and represent impactful and valuable knowledge exchange (the sharing and ‘trying out’ of new music and performances to see how an audience responds), and yet they do not generate any recognition for the institution, whether financial or in terms of reputation.

The KEF narrative statements, submitted once every three years, allow for institutions to write narrative under a selection of pre-assigned headings on their knowledge exchange activity. The outcome of the submission of these reports is that they are published alongside each institution’s KEF, on a central website. However, these narrative statements are not measured, judged or verified in any way, nor do they feed into any institutional recognition or reward (except for some of the self-scores feeding into some of the KEF outcomes). These narrative statements are a chance for small specialist institutions to demonstrate not only the depth of their KE activity (and to show how they have shared this with those external to the institution, and gauged and solicited reactions to, and contributions to such activity), but to present case studies which are testament to how many of the institution’s people, whether staff or students, are part of the KE community. It is likely that all, or most, members of these communities engage with KE activities regularly every year, whether this is via all students undertaking work placements as part of their degree programmes (not merely as a co-curricular option), students performing and talking at local community arts and / or science festivals, or staff and students engaging local school children in music workshops. This is also a chance for institutions to demonstrate how their knowledge exchange activity promotes access, inclusion and diversity in their sector and in the wider world, and how they are generating ideas and events which are linked to one or more of the sustainable development goals (e.g., the RNCM’s theme for the academic year 2023-24 is ‘The Future is Green’, and this permeates the performance and academic programme). However, knowledge exchange activities which address access, inclusion, and challenges in today’s world are not rewarded in any significant way in current knowledge exchange reporting and monitoring.

To summarise, the ways KE is measured nationally – via submission of the annual HEBCI return, the 3-yearly KEF narrative statements, and the compilation of the annual KEF results – allow institutions to submit data in the form of income, number of people engaged, and text relating to specific examples of KE. The outcomes are twofold: HEIF funding, and recognition via the publication of the KEF results and narrative statements. However, only knowledge exchange which generates income (for example, contract research, IP, or income for facilities and services) feeds into KE funding. In other words, one of the main rewards for KE activity within institutions – the financial reward – is calculated only according to how much money an institution has generated through KE. In this, financial value is prioritised. But what about KE which generates social value, health or wellbeing value, value in terms of new ideas which promote access and inclusion, or KE which seeks to build community? The way in which institutions are meaningfully rewarded for KE needs to recognise that not all value is financial – what about music students who work with residential homes to help people with dementia to engage with friends and family, or work placements in prisons where students lead workshops to create new music with inmates (i.e., the social impact of knowledge exchange activity)? This is important and impactful KE, but the value here is not financial, and hence this work is not rewarded via current KE metrics. This valuing of knowledge exchange in terms of the money which changes hands from business to university also suggests that knowledge exchange may be conceptualised as it being the role of higher education institutions to service businesses. This is not true ‘exchange’ in terms of partners working together, but a contractual one-way transmission of information without the rich and mutual benefit of more meaningful knowledge exchange.

The takeaway message here is that the way in which KE is captured and measured – through the HEBCI and submission of KEF narrative statements – does not adequately capture the breadth, depth, quality and value of much of the KE activity at the very heart of small specialist creative institutions. KE is at the core of everything that those working in music conservatoires do, embedded in a meaningful way which sincerely recognises that knowledge should be shared outside the walls of the academic institution. This passionate and genuine knowledge sharing is not tokenistic or curated in order to increase HEIF funding or manipulate any metrics, KE activity at small specialist creative institutions has been there from the very beginnings of the institution and discipline. It is the very foundation on which student training is based, and according to which degree programme modules are designed, and students prepared for their careers. For example, creative graduates are more likely than any other graduate to earn freelance income as part of their careers. Creative institutions have therefore become excellent at training students in entrepreneurship skills, for example finance and tax, project management, idea generation and networking. Indeed, this year’s Times Higher Award for ‘Outstanding Entrepreneurial University’ was awarded to the Royal Northern College of Music.

So where do we go from here? What changes might we advocate for that would more accurately and genuinely represent the knowledge exchange bedrock on which all small specialist creative institutions sit? Dialogue between small specialist creative institutions and governing bodies is important, in order that these environments are understood, and that future reviews of KE metrics might take these into account. If the aim is to champion the huge value of KE in the UK, small specialist creative institutions are leading the way in many respects. Few other institutions engage so high a proportion of all staff and students in regular KE activity every year. Another consideration that could be made is that data such as that captured in HEBCI Table 5 might feed into one or more outcomes, whether KEF, or the HEIF formula. Of course, one reason why it may be challenging for the total number of people who knowledge has been shared with to be counted  (e.g., audience members) is that each institution may measure numbers of people differently (e.g., one may measure tickets sold in advance, and another actual footfall of those that attended). This is not insurmountable, it simply requires consultation with the sector, leading to a system and a guidance document about how numbers should be tracked. Perhaps we should be starting with looking at the breadth, depth, and types of KE that take place within our sector, and looking for ways to capture and reward this, rather than limiting rewards to what can easily be measured and audited (for example by cross-referencing HEBCI data to an institution’s annual financial return). We have much more meaningful systems in place for TEF and REF exercises, which involve a thorough review of an institution’s landscape, without being limited only to those activities which generate income. We now need a much more holistic, informed, and representative way to measure all KE activity in our sector, which truly represents how ‘universities and other higher education institutions exchange knowledge with the wider world in a way that contributes to society and the economy’. Such a system must necessarily account for the many ways in which KE generates multiple kinds of value to our communities, our industries, and to the general public, locally, nationally and internationally.

Top Image caption: String quartet ‘Vulva voce’ who won the RNCM Creative Innovators Award 2022 for their quartet, which champions female performers and music by female composers (they then went on to win ‘Classical Battle of the Bands’)

Middle Image caption: An experiment run by Michelle Phillips (RNCM) in collaboration with Manchester Camerata, the University of Manchester and the University of Manchester, which examined brain and body response to live and livestreamed music