By Dan Davison, Cambridge UCU member

On 9 January 2019, Research England published its consultation on the proposed Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF), announcing plans to run a pilot KEF at 12 to 16 institutions between February and April 2019. First announced in October 2017 by then Universities Minister Jo Johnson, the framework is ostensibly to ensure that the knowledge produced by universities is being utilised in the wider world. However, its true purpose is to facilitate the commercialisation of university research.

It will join the existing metrics of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which purport to evaluate research impact and teaching quality respectively. Although the KEF is not set to rank universities based on a single score, institutions will still be assigned a decile rank in seven areas or ‘perspectives’ of ‘knowledge exchange’. As such, the KEF marks a further phase in the process of turning the education sector into a market where institutions must compete with one another to survive.

The KEF’s marketising nature becomes even more overt when one considers how the proposed ‘perspectives’ for the framework include ‘working with business’, ‘skills, enterprise and entrepreneurship’, and ‘IP and commercialisation’. Within each of these areas are such evaluative criteria as ‘contract research income with businesses per academic’ and ‘graduate start-up rate per student’. In other words, the KEF seeks to rank institutions and ration funding based on how well their research output serves commercial interests.

By measuring the worth of academic research output according to how well it serves the interests of business, the KEF would further transform universities into instruments of capital. Perhaps most obviously, this would hit the arts and humanities badly because those subjects are less ‘useful’ from a commercial standpoint. At the same time, we cannot lose sight of how the chaining of knowledge-production to business interests would detrimentally affect the natural sciences, since the KEF would prioritise those research projects that can be most easily commercialised.

Moreover, even in fields where there is an immediately practical and socially useful application of research, the prospect of institutions feeling compelled to achieve such research application via commercial vehicles is deeply concerning. Ben Towse deftly illustrates this with the example of the artificial antibody drug Remicade discovered at New York University (NYU), which Johnson pointed to as the kind of ‘knowledge exchange’ that the KEF seeks to emulate. Since Remicade had to be sold off to the private sector, two giant pharmaceutical companies manufacture and sell the drug: Johnson & Johnson’s (US) and Merck (Europe).

As Towse observes, before its European patent expired, Remicade ‘was the NHS’s fifth costliest drug, with nearly £200m per year going into Merck’s pocket for it’. This powerfully demonstrates why we cannot let research performed by public and non-profit institutions depend on the private sector for translation into ‘real world’ benefit. In their drive to turn a profit, businesses will inevitably restrict access to the life-changing products of research and charge exorbitant prices for them.

Moreover, by adding yet another layer of metrics to those we have under the existing ‘excellence frameworks’, KEF would make bureaucracy even more immanent to academic work than it is already. The neoliberal university already compels education workers to monitor their performance constantly, rush paper submissions in time for REF cycles, and raise consumerist ‘student satisfaction’ scores. The last thing we need is yet another set of hoops academic staff will feel impelled to jump through, which is especially true for precariously employed researchers in the early stages of their career.

I therefore call on student and trade union activists on campus to organise against this latest wave of metricisation in the sector. Each passing year makes the marketisation and commodification of education seem more like a fait accompli, but if the Great University Strike last year proved anything, it’s that, even when we least anticipate it, the rank-and-file of the student and labour movements can reignite in the furnace of common struggle.