author: Mark Gray – Director of Knowledge Transfer at Middlesex University
Most academic staff have high teaching loads, and undertake research not just in university time but in their own time too – so why should a member of academic staff at a university like Middlesex engage with knowledge transfer?
Here are 20 very good reasons – written on a train ride home as a challenge to myself to come up with at least 20. (I came up with far more, by the way – but maybe my commute is too long!)
Consider them, and decide whether KT isn’t an absolutely vital element of a modern academic career:
1. KT is about engaging with people from outside of academia and delivering the benefit of your know-how and research knowledge at a point where it can be used. So it is a vital route to demonstrating the impact of your research. That’ll stand you (and your subject area) in good stead come REF.
2. KT demonstrated just how valuable our universities are not just to the economy, but to national social and cultural life too. If you believe in the value of our universities and want to show it, doing KT is a very practical response.
3. KT or KE? The difference between ‘exchange’ and ‘transfer’ isn’t profound – but the word ‘exchange’ highlights a very important benefit of doing this kind of work. You’ll learn from them as much as they’ll learn from you. Some of the most challenging problems for our research and for use in our teaching come from what we rather charmingly call ‘the real world’. Messy problems can inspire the best research and teaching.
4. The money isn’t unhelpful. Universities are, you may have noticed, not exactly flavour of the month with government, and we need all the income we can get as student cohorts decline, overseas recruitment gets tougher and low, slow, growth continues in the economy.
5. Do KT to help that next research grant application or that application for engagement funding for your students. Showing that you know how to work with organisations outside of the academic world is terrifically impressive to funders. For some funding – like Follow On funding from RCUK – it is actually a requirement to demonstrate that you ‘know how to KT’, as it were.
6. Your students can tell when your world is bounded by texts and journal articles and when it involves contact with that ‘real world’ (a very silly phrase I admit) I mentioned. Authenticity in your teaching benefits from your external engagement generally, yes – by KT allows you not just to listen in to the public conversation that will inform your teaching, but actively to shape it. That’s ringing authenticity for your lectures.
7. Your colleagues will be impressed. I know this sounds like a tag line from an advert for brain-training software, but it’s true. If your students will recognise that exposure to problems outside of the ‘state of the art’ stretch you and make you a better teacher, your colleagues will notice a colleague fizzing with fresh ideas and perspectives.
8. Government and funders expect it. Yes I know, it is dull and dispiriting to say – but we are accountable as an exempt charity, and we should do things that span our whole charitable purpose. That can and should include some of the elements of KT.
9. ‘Make friends and meet interesting people’ as the old advertising slogan had it. Well, you will if you do KT. You’ll interact with very bright people who work on the same problems that interest you, but who work in industry, frontline public services, government, theatres, galleries and in a host of other contexts. To coin yet another phrase, a change is often as good as a rest – working in someone else’s environment (even for a bit) can be stimulating. But those new friends can also be advocates, champions and a source of new networks for you too. KT will swell your contacts list.
10. KT is about all the things we all came into academia to do – it’s the ‘money bit’ (the commercialisation element) that puts some people off. Imagine KT without money changing hands. Wouldn’t that be subsidy? If industry needs our advice, knowhow and research, it should pay for it – as it would pay for anything else. Don’t let the money question get in the way of the fact that KT is one part of the armoury of an academic to change the world for the better through the deployment of what we know.
11. Other people are doing it. That isn’t always the best reason for doing something (viewers of the X-Factor take note) but if we are going to work with other universities in collaboration – sharing everything from doctoral student support to fresh thinking about curriculum, from liaison with professional bodies to joint programmes of research – we need to be able to offer KT capability too.
12. The world speaks KT. If we are going to remain an institution committed to being involved internationally with learning, teaching and research, KT is probably a safe bet. The days of opening doors in a new country and expecting to reap huge, repatriated, profits are probably over: what more and more countries are saying to the UK government is ‘help us grow our research and KT capability in partnership with your universities’. KT helps our international mission.
13. Students can play a role. Whoever said that the knowledge you transfer has to come from just your head? Some of the best KT projects have involved students – who in turn learn how to undertake work in a very different context from that of the university classroom, lab or workshop. Lots of our programmes include scope for something like KT activity already – let’s get the creative juices flowing and do more.
14. Universities change – some of that change being the result of external pressures, some from choices we make ourselves. The world, though, goes on around us largely oblivious to what we do. In such an environment, you need the flexibility that comes from not having all of your proverbial eggs in one basket – whether it is research, teaching or (even) KT. But NOT doing KT actually closes down options as everything in points 1-13 shows. Do KT and give the university the flexibility to respond as the world changes around us.
15. Academic careers now include KT as standard. Go for another job at another institution without some KT under your belt alongside that impressive teaching pedigree and fine list of 4* publications and you will be beaten to the position by someone else with all of your accomplishments AND the KT. Engage in KT at least because all of the benefits of it in 1-13 are ‘bankable’ via your CV!
16. It’s all about skills. ‘Good team player’ doesn’t have to mean just that you served on departmental committees and team-taught that new BA. It can also mean you worked in and with teams comprising people from outside your university in which your insights skills and knowledge contributed mightily to team success. Being a skilled person now means much more than it did 50 years ago. It now means the ability to see where, how and when to deploy your unique talents along with others who see the same for themselves. KT is all about team work.
17. We all need friends. Universities need more than most at the moment if we are to continue to have public trust and support. My point 9 above was all about winning friends for you and your research, but KT can also win raving fans for Middlesex. ‘Without Middlesex we would have been able to…’, ‘Middlesex University showed us that…’, ‘Academics from Middlesex enabled us to see that…’ – it’s all good evidence of the worth of this university.
18. Curriculum development is key to keeping teaching fresh and the outcomes (including routes to jobs for our students) exceptional. One way to do so is via KT. Let me explain. One element of KT – CPD – is a really very creative way of developing fresh curriculum for direct benefit now but with lasting benefit in UG and PGT programmes. CPD can lead you into areas of curriculum development that might have taken years to reach your UG class.
19. KT isn’t quite like any other form of management task. Managing a programme, or a module, or a research project is occasionally tough, but by and large we are likely – even when the management task is vexing – to be speaking to others with perspectives, timescales and expectations very similar to our own. KY isn’t always a challenge, but when it is the challenge relates to management. One huge benefit of KT for academics is that it stretches your capabilities as a manager of projects. Timescales will change, demands will be diffuse and contradictory, commissioners may even not know what a successful outcome looks like. KT is stretching, but in a good way.
20 Because it is fun. It really is. My own KT in over 30 years of doing it – and not as a director of KT, but as a ‘chalk face doer of KT’ – has included privatising a state lottery, spinning out a company connected with archaeological surveying, restructuring the economics advice capability of a national ministry of finance, helping the strategic planning process of a sea fishing agency, and informing the decision making in an historic spa town as one of its major employers left the area.
All of those things – all of them – were fun to do. Yes the benefits of all of the points 1-19 above came into play (in various combinations) with each of them, but KT can and will put a smile on your face.
Give doing KT a whirl.