The Scope and Scale of Knowledge Exchange in Higher Education


What is Knowledge Exchange?

It’s a question worth asking. Particularly in the Higher Education (HE) sector where the significance of effective knowledge exchange (KE) is growing and having more demonstrable impact across all our activities. That said, it is question that few stop to consider in any detail. Often academics view KE as something accomplished outside their roles as teachers and researchers, done by professional services or specialist bodies within their institution. Indeed, some might never even consider–or need to consider–the question at all.

Understanding & Exploring Knowledge Exchange

The problem of knowledge exchange for most academics is one of scope and scale, of understanding how it fits within, or overlaps with, their defined roles. In the first class of Understanding & Exploring Knowledge Exchange, a module I teach at the University of Strathclyde, I intentionally bring students to the first class ‘blind’, providing no pre-reading or any reference given to what KE might or might not be. Rather, the intention is to explore KE as a mutually and socially constructed term, to tease out its relationship to academics’ individual work, to its function in their discipline, and to the stakeholders they engage with.

It is a direct challenge, particularly to those academics who would prefer to have an easy answer, a singular, all-encompassing definition and guide, handed to them on a plate. With definitions of KE ranging wildly from institution to institution, from funding agency to agency, and from government department to department, such a definition remains, as of this writing, elusive. In the minds of most academics, KE initially appears blurry and ill-defined, clouded by associations, bereft of any real sense of scope or scale. Or, inversely, profoundly limited, specific to a single activity–usually income-generation.

The True Scope and Scale of Knowledge Exchange

The phrase ‘how long is a piece of string?’ comes to mind when we consider the true scope and scale of KE in Higher Education. Alternatively, we might ask: what can, or cannot, be seen as knowledge exchange? Is teaching an act of knowledge exchange? Is research? What about those departmental meetings… are they KE? Over the years, in exploring and debating a breadth of answers and potential confounders, cohorts of academics in the class have frequently reduced the scope of knowledge exchange to two key factors: it must be mutually beneficial and it must be reciprocal, an effective, valuable two-way exchange.

While most institutional agendas emphasise KE activity that generates income from industry or business partners, successful knowledge exchange also takes the form of ventures and partnerships with government agencies, schools, not-for-profits, or the wider society. Any mutually beneficial, reciprocal exchange of knowledge, skills, and/or other outputs. Using those two key factors, we can find opportunities for knowledge exchange in nearly every activity in Higher Education. Perhaps what is required is more divergent thinking on our parts.

And what of scale? Working through the module, academics are asked to envision or develop 1-3 knowledge exchange ventures in a few weeks time. These ventures should be achievable, real, with consideration given to the selection of stakeholders and the benefits for them. What has continually surprised me with every new cohort is the breadth of scale included in these ventures: from one-off, hour-long activities with local schools to the long-term creation of new businesses or spin-outs in partnership with multi-nationals. Scale, it seems is dependent on imagination and opportunity. For some, due to the constraints of their role or other imposed limits, the realistic scale of their KE activities might be small, while for others, scale is a more flexible and opportunistic element.

The Future of Knowledge Exchange in Higher Education

Considering the glacial rate of change within Universities, knowledge exchange might still be seen as a relatively new development. This novelty is likely one of the contributing factors to the fuzziness surrounding KE. But interestingly, in my experience, that ambiguity has shown real value in the classroom in providing academics with opportunities to freely develop their own conceptions and design individually meaningful KE ventures. Perhaps the future of KE in higher education need not be resolved in black and white, in strict definitions and absolutes. Perhaps there is more to be gained in recognising the value and opportunity in keeping knowledge exchange just a little grey.

Senior Teaching Fellow and Researcher at Strathclyde University, Academic Development Lead for Knowledge Exchange

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