Knowledge transfer is a term used to encompass a broad range of activities to support mutually beneficial collaborations between universities, businesses and the public sector. In the face of demands from funding bodies and ultimately taxpayers, universities all over the world are increasingly expected to demonstrate that their activities have a positive economic and social impact. Direct knowledge transfer to businesses, governments and society in general allows universities to make a visible contribution outside the ‘ivory tower’ of academia and can also help them to raise additional funds.
Since knowledge transfer has become as important as a university’s longstanding commitment to teaching and research, the question of how well they perform this mission has gained prominence. Most universities attempt to measure performance in knowledge transfer, but focus on a quantity of outputs rather than the quality or efficiency. Even studies that measure efficiency tend to focus on a limited set of knowledge transfer activities, like technology through the commercialisation of patent licenses, creation of spin-out companies or research contracting with industry.
However, universities fulfil their knowledge transfer mission through many other activities, which include delivering knowledge-intensive services such as consultancies, clinical tests, prototypes and professional development courses, engaging in informal networks and staff exchanges with industry, contributing to community regeneration programmes and engaging with the public through different media.
The efficiency of 97 universities in the United Kingdom was measured for a range of knowledge transfer activities: research contracts, consultancies, professional development courses, generation of intellectual property and public engagement. Compared with a restrictive definition of knowledge transfer that only includes research contracts and intellectual property, this broader approach produces a different ranking for the most efficient universities: more universities achieve efficiency, and the distribution of efficiency scores is less skewed.
The universities that increase their efficiency when a broader definition of knowledge transfer is used have a lower share of staff in medicine and natural sciences and a higher share of staff in the arts and humanities; they are less likely to have a university hospital, and are more teaching-intensive. By adopting a broader approach to measuring knowledge transfer, some universities that are less research-oriented and less focused on science and medicine can better demonstrate their efficiency. More efficient institutions have a larger amount of staff and students; they are older, but have a more recently established knowledge transfer office; and they are specialised in a few subject areas (although some diversified universities are also efficient). Research, teaching intensity, and geographical location do not have a significant effect on efficiency.
The findings suggest that universities with different production models can be equally efficient in generating knowledge transfer outputs, and that research intensity is not a prerequisite for efficiency. Universities can achieve efficiency by adopting a model of knowledge transfer engagement that is consistent with their resources, without needing to replicate the knowledge transfer strategies of prominent institutions whose resources may be very different. By improving their reputation for excellence in specific activities that best fit the institution’s resources, universities may increase their ability to generate further knowledge transfer outputs. In fact, institutional reputation appears to increase knowledge transfer opportunities, with more reputable older, larger and diversified institutions achieving greater efficiency.
Another implication of the findings is that, rather than having an established Knowledge Transfer Office (KTO), what affects efficiency are its practices and policies, and the professionalism of its staff. KTOs therefore need to invest in staff training and in the development of best practices. Developing specialised, subject-specific skills and structures to support knowledge transfer, rather than generic ones may also pay off.
While performance is often measured by looking at outputs, thinking about performance in terms of efficiency helps us recognise that universities work with very different resources, which affects the nature of their knowledge transfer engagement. Changes in the resources available to universities, through potential changes in the rules governing the allocation of public funds, will also change their ability to engage in knowledge transfer.
Policymakers need to think systematically about the effect of changes in funding for research and teaching (for example, the replacement of recurrent grants with competitive funding) on a university’s ability to engage in knowledge transfer. The relationship between funding sources and knowledge transfer strategies, which has been largely unexplored to date, would merit greater attention from both researchers and policymakers.
Federica’s research article on The drivers of efficient knowledge transfer performance: evidence from British universities 2017), was recently published in Cambridge Journal of Economics
Listen to Federica explain her research in our “Research at Birkbeck” video.