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29th November, 2021

Data and EDI in Knowledge Exchange

Dr Mark Gray Pro-Vice Chancellor & Director, Knowledge Transfer, Middlesex University

How do you ensure your knowledge exchange activity is wholly inclusive, reflects the diversity of your institution and the wider community and that it ensures equality in participation and benefit? It’s an enormous challenge but one that KE practitioners are starting to think and talk about.

At their recent conference members of Praxis Auril considered the question of how to place EDI at the centre of KE practice. Praxis Auril’s CEO argued that ‘…it wasn’t until after the Black Lives Matters protests that [Praxis Auril] started to think more seriously about the responsibility that it has, as an organisation with significant convening power, not just to quietly endorse these sorts of messages, but to amplify them – and to take action to ensure that PrA members feel enabled and empowered to discuss the issues and find solutions to challenges that they are facing’. It’s clear that the conversation is now active and lively (Praxis Auril’s own ‘Action4EDI in KE’ special interest group has 43 enthusiastic members from across higher education), but that conversation needs to grow and be nurtured across all parts of higher education if we are to identify the solutions that work to grow inclusion and belonging and to cement a recognition of the value of diversity in KE practice.

In order to find solutions, though, it is becoming clear through discussion within the profession that we need better and more nuanced data to help understand how to move forward. Monitoring of progress in EDI within universities depends on quality data being available, let alone data relating to the reach, impact and audience for KE work outside of them, and it is often difficult to broker access to data needed for analysis even within an academic institution. Some universities are beginning to use fine grained data to ask questions about where KE support might be offered to spur engagement with innovation internally – but if, say, ethnicity data from a university HR department is not available to determine whether invention disclosures are coming from one predominant ethnicity, and the extent to which that distribution (if established) is the result of the ethnic balance of the faculties making the most disclosures, it is going to be hard to make progress. Those of us in the KE practice community need to start pressing for the collection and analysis of data on the audience for, and benefit from, KE work. Do we intend our external KE collaborations to be truly inclusive? Do we achieve it when we intend it, and how do we know? 

Of course universities do not operate in a vacuum and there are substantial forces pushing us toward embracing this agenda of growing the evidence base to make action possible. Funders and agencies are now intending routinely to require evidence-based self-analysis to figure in the research and KE culture of institutions. The REF required institutions to ‘submit an institutional-level environment statement, providing evidence about how equality and diversity in research careers is supported and promoted across the institution’, UKRI’s EDI data pages suggest a seriousness of intent from the sector lead on research and KE to learn from better data, and the government’s own R&D People and Culture Strategy talks of ‘a positive, inclusive and respectful culture that attracts a diversity of people to work and thrive in R&D in the UK and encourages them to stay’ which needs to be evidence informed. Data, evidence – the essential building blocks for shaping a more inclusive practice community inside universities are not only going to be required to shape better practice at institutional level but better practice across the whole sector and more widely.

Data on how we perform as a sector outside of our institutions seems less plentiful and of insufficient priority. In composing their Action Plans for the KE Concordat universities were not advised or required, for example, to reflect on whether they ought to collect data or reflect on EDI issues in relation to their external KE work using data, and the guidance for the development of KEF narratives made no specific reference to data collection on the diversity of audience or beneficiaries from KE work or the efforts made to ensure inclusion. Institutions may, of course, have chosen to discuss this in their KEF and Concordat statements, but neither process drove forward engagement with the data collection issue. Perhaps now is the time to do so. How should we track the impact of our KE and engagement work in the community? Do we survey beneficiaries or merely record their characteristics? Are we interested in short term reception or long term effect in making change happen? What, in short, is the data necessary to make intelligent planning for more diverse and inclusive KE to happen in the places where its benefit is felt?

I don’t want to suggest that there is not a lot of good practice taking place within universities – for example using board and panel membership as a route to widening inclusion, whether externally or internally, in KE engagement. Representation, in fact, seems to be an amenable and well understood route to taking action on EDI in knowledge exchange. There are also plenty of examples in the sector of universities using mandates to change behaviours – for example mandating EDI training in all areas of research and KE, and not just for the purposes of executing the REF. In several institutions it is an absolute requirement for senior managers (academic and non-academic) to have undergone training in EDI, and in some institutions research impact plans may be required to come with an equalities impact assessment. A few institutions (it should be more) are pursuing the principle that their EDI plans and ambitions should be grounded in research by engaging university researchers working on equalities issues to draft the policies. 

Mandating change, though, works where there is the power to require participation. Outside of the university, the powers of a Vice Chancellor are less about direction and more about the ‘power to convene’ and have the institution act as an example in the community. Should we, perhaps, make more active use of a kind of ‘EDI due diligence’ to ensure the people we worked with outside of our institutions had similar values to those of our own institutions? Should we track data on this? Should we, perhaps, routinely ask beneficiaries of KE projects not just whether our projects succeeded in delivering value but whether they enhanced participation and inclusion, cemented a sense of belonging and contribution and extended opportunity? 

The challenge for universities is to understand, internally and externally, how well and how far their KE activity is working for the benefit of all of the people in our country. To do that, we need to talk about the data we need, collect it, analyse it, use it. The very soul of a university is a belief in knowledge and evidence as essential tools for doing things; we need to put that ethic to work to make our knowledge exchange even better and more genuinely impactful.

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