The UK India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI): reflections on ‘the complexities of global partnerships in higher education

gore221This entry has been kindly prepared by Tim Gore, Director of The Centre for Indian Business, University of Greenwich, London, UK. Tim has worked closely with educationalists, institutions, companies and governments to improve bilateral and multilateral educational links in Hong Kong, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and India over a 23 year period. His most recent role was Director, Education at the British Council in India, where he was responsible for growing the knowledge partnership between India and the UK. Tim also led the establishment of the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) that is profiled in this blog entry.

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Building sustainable global partnerships

Partnership is a word that is often used but difficult to define. Many claim to have meaningful partnerships but in reality I suspect good partnerships are rare. Partnerships between academic institutions across national and cultural frontiers are especially challenging. In the first place, the institutions themselves are complex, multi-dimensional and resistant to being led in the traditional sense. On the other hand, there is language, the subtle nuances of unspoken cultural expectations and distance! UKIERI – the UK India Education and Research Initiative – was established with the aim of rebuilding the lapsed educational relationship between the UK and India. It was to focus on building academic partnerships that were meaningful and sustainable.

India and the UK

India emerged from its colonial period according to some commentators with the newfound national pride as the growth of their economy and their nuclear and space sciences established their national credibility (see Mohan, 2006). Since the economic reforms of 1991, India had opened its doors and witnessed a dizzying growth. But to fuel this growth, education became more important and with it an interest in partnership with amongst others the UK. The UK also recognised the need of knowledge to fuel its growth and set up several institutions such as the Science and Innovation Council to achieve this. India and China were obvious partners with their rapidly growing academic and research capabilities.

ukierilogoThe UK government put the initial funds into UKIERI to start it up closely followed by industry sponsors and later as trust was built, the Indian Government. A number of consultations in India and UK gathered views from the sector about how to achieve the goals. The result was a carefully balanced funding mechanism that encouraged competitive bids across a range of academic collaborations but with similar criteria of impact, relevance, high quality standards and sustainability. The funding was mainly mobility money to break down the difficulty of distance and encourage partners to spend time together. Bids needed to demonstrate that the activities of the partnership were of strategic importance to the institutions involved and that matching funding was available.

The concept of ‘strategic alliances’ has quickly evolved over the last few decades from a position where they were little mentioned in strategy textbooks. Michael Porter, for example, in his work on market forces in the seventies and eighties was more concerned with firms as coherent entities in themselves made up of strategic business units but conceptually sealed from competing firms in the market. Since then, alliances have become crucially important to the extent that a product such as the iPod is the product of a very complex set of strategic relationships where its brand owner, Apple, does not directly produce any part of the iPod or its content.

A variety of writers have looked at alliances from different perspectives. Economic and managerial perspectives see alliances as ways of reducing risk or exerting power and influence in a market. However, social capital and network analyses are far more subtle and see alliances as ways of accessing complex tacit knowledge that is not easy to build or acquire in other ways. Here, the concept of trust plays a big role and we come back to human interaction.

Academic institutions could be concerned with market share and can definitely be concerned about costs. So an analysis such as’ resource based theory’ or ‘transaction cost analysis’ may describe their motivations for partnership well. However, such institutions are complex and exhibit complex goals.

Studies in Norway (see Frølich, 2006) have shown that academic ambition and status is the main driver for researchers seeking overseas links rather than financial or institutional inducements which are merely facilitative. In this analysis, knowledge is power. Knowledge is difficult to acquire and especially those parts of knowledge that are not easily coded and where even the questions are difficult to frame let alone the answers that are sought. Trading in knowledge of this type is done only under conditions of trust.

However, this is only part of the picture. Institutions do have a role. In studies of the success of innovation in the Cambridge innovation cluster, the success was attributed to two sorts of social capital – structural and relational. The individual researchers can easily create the relational capital at conferences and other academic encounters but the structural capital comes by virtue of institutional links such as shared governors on a board. If we can create conditions of both structural and relational capital we can expect a more robust and productive alliance. It is this that UKIERI was trying to achieve.

Buying a stake in the process

bangalore-015UKIERI insisted that institutions buy a stake in the process at the same time as encouraging academics to create their partnerships. Funding was deliberately limited so that the institution had to contribute or find extra funding from a third party. This ensured that the strategic interests of the institution were taken into account. Many universities asked all their staff with an interest in India to attend a working group and prioritise their own bids into UKIERI. At the same time, UKIERI looked for evidence of synergy within the teams and evidence that the partnership would yield more than the sum of the parts. UKIERI arranged a two stage process of peer review to look at the academic strengths followed by a panel review to look holistically at the partnership.

Trust was built at many levels in the Initiative. The Indian Government demonstrated their trust by co-funding the second year after having satisfied themselves that there was genuine mutuality. Many partnerships had to deal with trust issues especially over funding which was channelled through the UK partner in the first year according to UK audit requirements. In a few cases trust broke down and partnerships did not work out but in the overwhelming majority the partnerships are doing well and producing strong research and academic outputs. The Initiative has been favourably reviewed by a number of institutions including the UK’s National Audit Office and a Parliamentary Select Committee.

‘Good’ communication sustains partnerships

In my experience, many partnerships run into difficulties because there is not enough contact between the partners, communications are sparse and often responses are slow or do not happen at all. Universities can give the appearance of being rather fragmented in their approach to partnerships as authority for the various components lies in different parts of the university.

Additionally, very often aspects of the partnership are agreed but then need to be ratified by academic councils or other internal quality processes and this again can cause delays. Very often, the partner is not told about the reason for delays and from the outside it is hard to understand why responses are so slow. This is accentuated when we are dealing across cultures and delays can be interpreted as lack of interest or even a lack of respect. In some cultures, it is not normal to say ‘no’ and a lack of response is the way of communicating lack of interest! All these communication issues erode the trust in the relationship and can be damaging.

I would recommend that each partnership always has a clear lead person who leads on communications and keeps in touch with all the processes on both sides of the partnership. It is important to be transparent about internal mechanisms and how long processes are really likely to take as well as what the processes are. The lead person can also coordinate visits to and fro and ensure that these are fairly regular. If there is a gap, there may be a relevant academic in the area who could take an extra day visiting the partner and keeping the relationship ‘warm’.

We often forget in our efforts to be both effective managers and academics that human relationships are at the core of all our enterprise and that these relationships need nurturing. Without this basic trust effective management of a project and high quality standards will not be enough.

Additional Reading

Frølich, N. (2006) Still academic and national – internationalisation in Norwegian research and higher education, Higher Education, 52 (3), pp. 405-420.

Gore, T. (2008) Global Research Collaboration: Lessons from Practice for Sustainable International Partnerships, October, London: Observatory of Borderless Higher Education.

Heffernan, T. and Poole, D. (2005) In search of the ‘vibe': creating effective international education partnerships, Higher Education, 50 (2), pp. 223-45.

Mohan, C.R. (2006) India and the balance of power, Foreign Affairs, 85 (4), pp. 17-32.

Muthusamy, S. K. and White, M. A. (2007). An empirical examination of the role of social exchances in alliance performance, Journal of Management Issues, 19 (1), pp. 53-75.

Myint, Y, Vyakarnam, S. et al (2005) The Effect of Social Capital in New Venture Creation: the Cambridge High Technology Cluster.

Tim Gore

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One thought on “The UK India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI): reflections on ‘the complexities of global partnerships in higher education

  1. Pingback: The US - India knowledge relationship: the sleeping giant stirs! « GlobalHigherEd

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