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Reconceptualising university contribution to knowledge exchange

17 July 2023

Fostering knowledge exchange

In recent years, fostering knowledge exchange (KE) between academics and external stakeholders has become increasingly important within the policy agenda. Universities have recognised the significance of KE as a “third mission” alongside research and teaching, leading to the institutionalisation of KE as a major branch of their activity.

While this development acknowledges the diversity of KE in terms of activities and actors, there remains a bias towards commercialisation of research and a dominant focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Such a narrow perspective obscures KE diverse impacts and value that KE holds for society.

As a guest editorial team with shared interests in the role of higher education in KE processes, we came together and called for papers addressing these concerns. 

The result of these collective efforts is a special issue in Studies in Higher Education aiming to overcome the prevailing narrow notion of KE and addressing broader questions related to engagement and incentives towards KE.

The special issue comprises seven papers that seek to broaden our understanding of KE, by considering more diverse audiences and impacts, and deepen the understanding of tensions and trade-offs between university missions – Teaching, Research and Third Mission.

The volume altogether sheds light on several themes that have received comparatively less attention in the literature.

Exploring neglected themes in KE

The papers in this special issue explore these three interrelated themes across various levels of analysis, including individual and organisational (HEIs), considering a variety of geographical scopes.

Implications for policy and research

As noted in our Editorial, the papers in the special issue point to the importance of broadening the engagement agenda and identify some implications for policy and future research. We need to be more aware of the socially embedded nature of the KE, and of the biases and power relations at play.

For instance, since female academics engage more with the Third Sector at every level of their career, having KE activities disproportionately represented by commercialisation is not only partial, but also carries a significant gender bias.

Highlights from the contributions in this volume carry both policy and management implications.

KE policy should not be designed in isolation. KE activities intersect with other university missions and activities, so policymakers must consider trade-offs between different missions and resource implications between them.

Complex factors influence individual academics’ choices, including university incentives, which moderate the link between intention and actual engagement. It is important to understand not only the motivations of academics towards KE, but also, their social and cultural preferences, and economic factors that may hinder their contributions to KE engagement.

In order to better understand the impact of KE, we need to unpack the relationship with the broader innovation ecosystem where KE takes place, through the linkages and interdependencies between different actors and intermediaries. This includes capturing the effects on partner organisations and individuals over time, including their learning processes.

Finally, indicators for KE need to include softer metrics on the quality of relationships and the social value they generate to fully accounts for the multiple impacts of KE.

About the authors

Dr Chiara Marzocchi is a Lecture/Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Newcastle University Business School. Dr Marzocchi’s research involves innovation and nascent entrepreneurship. It looks at the contribution of universities to entrepreneurship and the role of contextual determinants in nurturing sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems.

This special issue was created in collaboration with: 

  • Professor Fumi Kitagawa, University of Birmingham, UK
  • Dr Federica Rossi, Birbeck, Univeristy of London, UK
  • Professor Elvira Uyarra, Alliance Manchester Business School (University of Manchester), UK