Mobilising knowledge in a time of change: the practice and role of UK HE agencies

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


General description and conceptual framework (600)

This paper will present evidence collected through interviews with 16 key UK higher education agencies as part of the current focus on creating both a Knowledge Excellence Framework (KEF) to evaluate knowledge exchange activities, and the possible establishment of a ‘What Works Centre’ for the purpose of sharing excellent practice across the HE sector in England.

Paradoxically, despite the current mantra of making universities part of the triple helix (Etzkowitz, et al, 2000), the role that universities, and academics in particular, have so far played in producing knowledge has been under attack for being obsolete, not accessible, marred by debates on the quality of the evidence, and of little practical use. Above all, and in the current situation, traditional means of knowledge production are also seen as not being ‘value for money’. While the debate of how to measure and value what universities as a whole contribute to society rages on, it is undoubtedly also timely and necessary to review the role HE agencies have in mobilising knowledge and thus helping decision makers to adapt to and lead change, and support universities and academics to contribute to it.

The issues of a gap between knowledge creation and knowledge transfer among academics and decision makers are not new. The field of knowledge management, for example, has steadily developed and focused on questions related to primarily the management of the human capital (see for example, Rynes et al, 2001; Ward, 2017; Smith et al, 2013). In the field of Social Sciences it has focused on methodological questions about the validity of evidence and the role of sociology (see for example, Bernstein, 1995). In education, questions about the validity of evidence (Bridges, 2006; Nutley, et al., 2008), and the applicability and validity of randomised control trials (Gorard and Cook, 2007; Hammersley, 2008) have a long and problematic history. Further critiques of a neo-liberal narrowly utilitarian and instrumental approach to knowledge, have created both a fertile and hostile environment.

Yet, much of this debate has remained stubbornly located within academia and specifically within discrete disciplines. Notwithstanding this fact, research and knowledge production on issues regarding higher education have steadily increased in quantity and quality. Most importantly, new knowledge producers, either from within the sector or in the form of think tanks and private research institutions, have come onto the stage. As Bannister and Hardill (2013: 168) suggest,

‘Effective KM demands that the social sciences require to dance with new partners in an age of austerity’

Although knowledge mobilisation (KMb) is part of a growing area of academic and practical interest in the production of knowledge that includes terms such as, knowledge transfer, knowledge diffusion, knowledge brokering, knowledge utilisation, knowledge transfer, and knowledge mobilisation, KMb is a relatively new term with a literature still underdeveloped and marred by the use of different concepts and terminology. Drawing from literature on the nature and function of What Works Centres (Ward, 2017), ecosystem services thinking (Jordan and Russell, 2014; Shepherd, 2014) and critiques of a simplistic view of linear knowledge transferability (Nutley, Walter and Davies, 2009), the RR, commissioned by the then Leadership for Higher Education, focused on the practice of knowledge mobilisation and fulfilled the following aims:
• Identify 2-3 mechanisms and a plan for road-testing them;
• Provide some categorisation and description of operating models (including resource implications), evolution, evaluation and impact;
• Relate mechanisms, where practical/appropriate, to the drivers for, origins and types of evidence being mobilised.

Methods/methodology (400)
The rapid review (RR) took place between February and April 2018 during a time of great change for the Higher Education (HE) sector in England. During these three months, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) ceased to be and the Office for Students (OfS) was created on 1 April 2018. The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE), which commissioned this research, joined the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) to become Advance HE, and the UK Research Council took on a new life as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The sector also saw a 14 days of strike action by academics in 64 universities against planned changes to staff pensions.

In the spirit of knowledge mobilisation as a partnership between academics and outside agencies for the purpose of sharing best practice, the methodology used Patton’s (2008) utilisation-focused evaluation requiring to set up a constructive dialogue partners and participants. Data were collected through interviews and focus groups, either in person or via Skype. The interview questions, agreed after discussion with commissioning body and their advisory team, were designed to cover three areas and to elicit information about:
• What, whose, how and why knowledge is mobilised;
• The type of evidence which is sought and mobilised;
• What mechanisms are used and how their impact is evaluated

We designed the main themes using Ward’s (2017) ‘Why, whose, what and how? A framework for knowledge mobilisers’.

In framing the type of evidence used and mobilised, the interviews and data analysis drew from Briner (2014). The final part of the interview focused on the nature of the operating model and the method to evaluate the impact of the KMb which included the following:
• Nature and utilisation of resources
• Operating models inclusive of funding, sustainability and governance
• Evolutions of KMb services
• Internal evaluation and quality assurance

Data were analysed thematically using Ward’s (2017) framework although further codes for each item were added resulting in a number of modifications and additions reflecting the specific nature of the English HE sector and how knowledge is mobilised by and within various agencies.

Expected outcomes (300)
The RR paints a varied picture which highlights strengths, challenges and limitations about how individual agencies mobilise knowledge, and which strategy can have an impact on the question whether the HE sector needs a What Works Centre.

Despite the time of change and upheaval, the topic of knowledge mobilisation (KMb) and the question whether the sector needs a What Works Centre (WWC) were pertinent and timely. In this respect, the rapid review is a contribution to and part of the fast developing knowledge economy in which ‘knowledge procurement’ will become more and more the engine of productivity and innovation (Devecchi, et al., 2017).

This key findings showed that,
• UK HE agencies are actively involved in KMb practices using a variety of mechanisms and strategies to mobilise knowledge which are dependent on the agency’s size, budget, nature of the membership and historical and current size and reach of their network
• UK HE agencies see their role as facilitators, brokers, critical friends and mediators although there is limited evidence that they speak to a large academic audience
• While some agencies are highly specialised, there is also overlap and a need to bring knowledge together for a more effective sharing and utilisation
• Evaluation of impact of such KMb activities is patchy and mainly related to customer satisfaction

The RR concluded with the following recommendations:
• Develop a common KMb-focused language and understanding
• Join up efforts of agencies’ current activities
• Develop focused commissioning of research to examine further the nature and impact of KMb between agencies, policy makers and universities.

Intent of publication

References (400)

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Bristow, D., Carter, L. & Martin, S. (2015) Using evidence to improve policy and practice: the UK What Works Centres, Contemporary Social Science, 10: 2, 126-137.

Devecchi, C., Hadawi, A., Turner, S., Armellini, A., Brooks, I., Mellish, B., Petford, N. and Ta’eed, O. (2017) Blockchain Educational Passport: the Decentralised Learning Ledger. Northampton: CCEG and University of Northampton. Available from:

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Hammersley, M. (2008) 'Paradigm war revived? On the diagnosis of resistance to randomized controlled trials and systematic review in education', International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 31: 1, 3-10

Jordan, A, and Russel, D. (2014) Embedding the concept of ecosystem services? The utilisation of ecological knowledge in different policy venues. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 32, 192-207.

Nutley, S., Walter, I, and Davies, H. T. O. (2009) Promoting Evidence-based Practice. Models and Mechanisms From Cross-Sector Review. Research on Social Work Practice, 19:5, 552-559, DOI: 10.1177/1049731509335496.

Nutley, S., Jung, T. and Walter, I. (2008) The many forms of research‐informed practice: a framework for mapping diversity. Cambridge Journal of Education, 38:1, 53-71, DOI: 10.1080/03057640801889980

Patton, M. Q. (2008) Utilization-Focused Evaluation. (4th Edition). London: Sage

Rynes, S. L., Bartunek, J. M., & Daft, R. L. (2001) Across the great divide: Knowledge creation and transfer between practitioners and academics. Academy of Management Journal, 44, 340–355.

Shepherd, J. (2014) How to achieve more effective services: the evidence ecosystem. Cardiff: What Works Network and Cardiff University

Smith, M., H. Wilkinson, and M. Gallagher (2013) ‘It’s What Gets through People’s Radars isn’t it”: Relationships in social work practice and knowledge exchange.’ Contemporary Social Science 3: 292–306.

Ward, V. (2017) Why, whose, what and how? A framework for knowledge mobilisers, Evidence & Policy, 13:3, 477–97
Period5 Sep 2019
Held atECER 2019 “Education in an Era of Risk – the Role of Educational Research for the Future?”, Universität Hamburg 3-6 September 2019, Germany
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • knowledge mobilisation
  • higher education
  • HIgher Education agencies