A new year, a new start: reigniting the HE-BCI major review
January marks not only the start of a new calendar year but also the start of the next phase of the HESA review of the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) data collection. Paused during the pandemic, we now intend to increase the pace of work, with a specific goal of further enhancing the 2022/23 data collection, as well as identifying longer-term development priorities. I am delighted to have been appointed as the Lead Policy and Research Analyst to develop the Agency’s subject matter expertise of knowledge exchange (KE) in higher education (HE) and review the collection to ensure it meets sector requirements. We have now commenced an 18-month project phase that will seek to further develop the priorities identified following the first phase of consultation undertaken in 2019.
What is the HE-BCI?
Established in 1999, the HE-BCI dataset comprises information on the knowledge exchange activities undertaken by HE providers across the UK. It covers collaborative research and development (R&D), spin-out company creation, intellectual property portfolios, provision of facilities and continuous professional development (CPD) that supports innovation systems, as well as other information on public engagement activity. We know from the work HESA has done so far that while of its continuation as an informative measure of knowledge exchange, there is a need to make better use of complementary public data sources. Furthermore, growing emphasis on regional innovation ecosystems and student entrepreneurialism indicates just two areas where users may have needs for statistics on new concepts.
The review to date
The first consultation of the HE-BCI major review took place in 2019, with providers, stakeholders and interested parties invited to complete an online survey to provide feedback on the usability and suitability of the HE-BCI collection. Representative of feedback from across all four Home Nations the responses were analysed and collated into three broad thematic responses:
- Existing elements of the collection that could be further enhanced and improved.
- Elements of the collection that were not required and thus could be removed.
- Proposals for additional data requirements that were not yet being captured but were deemed as an essential requirement.
Overall, the HE-BCI survey was welcomed as a method for providers to evidence their knowledge transfer, research and innovation activities. It was widely considered to be a useful indicator for benchmarking KE impact at both national and international levels and featured heavily in the formation of HE strategies and key performance indicators. Similarly, the recognition of HESA data as being a key metric in current funding allocations was appreciated by many participants.
In line with this, respondents called for greater consistency in the application of concepts and definitions used within the dataset to ensure fair reporting by submitting providers. This greater consistency would in turn create a more equal playing field for competing institutions in attracting external funding and achieving recognition. Given the projected increases in available public funding, the HE-BCI survey was also perceived as a potential vehicle for improving accountability with a relatively modest change in the burden of reporting. Suggestions for refined guidance notes and better-defined concepts of KE featured heavily across most recommendations for improvement.
Other key themes identified in the analysis were:
- Further justification to support the data requirements of the record, particularly for those data items that are duplicates of those submitted to agencies external of HESA.
- Greater emphasis on the role of students in knowledge exchange and their recognition as useful instruments in successful interactions with external stakeholders.
- Recognising the limited capacity in using income as a proxy for knowledge exchange and its inability to demonstrate the scope of activities, an emphasis on the need to highlight the nuanced impact of social and cultural interactions.
- The need for HE-BCI data to better support regional benchmarking and expose inequalities of opportunity for knowledge exchange in particular localities.
During the summer of 2021, we undertook a short and focussed piece of work to evaluate what immediate improvements could be made to the 2021/2 collection in the light of the consultation. Details of these changes are available within the latest version of the HE-BCI coding manual, released on 26 January 2022. These include the suspension of Part A of the survey for the time being, and revisions to guidance in several sections. However, more fundamental improvements will be needed to meet the growing needs of data users.
A new urgency
Recent political agendas such as the UK Government’s call for a ‘levelling up’ of skills and opportunities at a local level emphasise the critical importance in having a robust and accurate reflection of the impacts of KE between HE providers and their communities. Whilst the complete reliance on quantifiable income-generation metrics is widely contested as a measure of KE, the HE-BCI dataset remains as an instrument in the allocation of funds to HE providers, most notably the Higher Education Initiative Fund in England and Block Grant allocations in Northern Ireland. Therefore, careful consideration is needed to determine how best to elicit the value of tacit, non-linear relationships between KE agents - whether HE providers, their staff and students, businesses or agencies of the public sector. There will also be a need to consider users’ output requirements in portraying KE and innovative R&D activity in its intertwined aspects as both a civic responsibility and as a generator of prosperity.
The HE-BCI dataset remains as an instrument in the allocation of funds to HE providers
Building on the 2019 consultation the new phase of the review seeks to refine the design and build of the HE-BCI dataset to improve how it demonstrates the impact of KE.
Drawing on academic, political and use-case developments in the last three years, the review will identify a realistic order of priorities and aims to effect pertinent changes to the 2022/23 HE-BCI collection. Ongoing areas of development beyond this timescale will help to identify a forecast of future data requirements to continue supporting the sector beyond the projected 18-month timeline for this phase.
At this early stage of the review I encourage interested colleagues from across the sector to reach out and share their thoughts on how the HE-BCI dataset can best reflect the expansive range of KE, R&D and innovation activities that UK HE providers contribute to. Throughout the review we shall be publishing frequent updates to ensure transparency of the project and facilitate collaborative discussions between HESA and the sector. Further details of how you can actively participate in the review will be announced shortly.
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