A primer on international partnerships

One notable challenge for many universities is moving beyond the superficial rhetoric of internationalization. Of course every university, and its leaders, are in favor of internationalizing: the signs are everywhere, from refashioned mission statements, to the building of some institutional capacity to understand and support internationalization, to the inclusion of the rhetoric of internationalization in speech after speech by university leaders.

Yet, in the end, the process of enhancing the territorial spread of institutional networks, and sometimes architectures, is not so simple: it requires the initiation and implementation of a strategic planning process, and the subsequent bringing to life of new linkages, partnerships, programs, and projects. All of these elements, of course,  are more than technical issues. They are highly political, not just in what linkages with whom, but how they are advanced.  For some, this involves a top-down led process of almost turning the university inside out (e.g., NYU), while for others it involves the slow and steady development of an infrastructure of support to enable units within a university to go at their own speed, in their own ways, free of formal managerialism where one unit (and often person) is deemed the defacto czar of internationalization.

Regardless of approach, one of the noteworthy aspects of this phenomenon is its formalization. What I mean by this is institutions of higher education are increasingly attempting to become more strategic in a comprehensive and legible way. Audits of international teaching and research activities are being conducted, and universities are ramping up their coordination capabilities via advisory councils, task forces, ad-hoc working groups and the use of specialist consultants. The best universities build in accountability and outcome measures to see what is really happening over time. This sometimes involves more staff versus additional resources for faculty and students, for good and for bad (see, for example, the vigorous debate about the rise of ‘deanlets’ and ‘deanlings’ in ‘The Fall of the Faculty‘, Inside Higher Ed, 14 July 2011).

In any case, the effort to become more strategic, and formal, about internationalization is abundantly evident in a new report released yesterday by the UK Higher Education International and Europe Unit. This report — A Guide to UK Higher Education and Partnerships for Overseas Universities  — is designed to serve as a “starting point for overseas institutions interested in establishing collaborations with UK higher education institutions.” As noted in the report’s executive summary:

Partnerships between academic institutions have tended to be the product of working relationships between individual academics; but more recently, as the potential benefits and risks from overseas collaborations have increased, universities and colleges have begun to manage their international partnerships portfolio more effectively.

Increasing competition is affecting the way UK universities think about their aspirations and how to maintain their international competitiveness. A strategic shift is underway – away from a focus on international student recruitment (at which the UK sector has been successful) and toward a longer-term and more partnership based conceptualisation of internationalisation.

Governments around the world are increasingly encouraging their universities to embrace the international agenda and to internationalise their institution. They are doing this by supporting and facilitating their higher education sectors to engage at an institutional level with global partners through teaching and research collaboration.

The free 52 page report, which is available in PDF format in English, Arabic and Chinese, is worth reading –  for even if you are not interested in partnering with UK universities, the report helpfully sets out a series of issues worth thinking about in general at both the university level (i.e. how to frame and implement partnerships) as well as the larger system-wide scale.

For example, the report prompted me to reflect on the issue of what associations of universities could do to better communicate about, in summary form, the taken-for-granted factors shaping the national systems of higher education and research their own universities are embedded in. And if this were to happen, what language(s) should this form of communications occur in? What format should these types of ‘primers’ be available in, and at what cost (if any)? And whom should we be communicating with as we lay out some of the groundwork for the hoped for formation of partnerships? Similarly, do we, at the university scale, provide sufficient analytically-oriented information, in one place on our websites, about the history, nature of, and entry points (with respect to governance), regarding our universities that prospective overseas partners would find beneficial to read prior to visits and negotiations?

Of course partnerships, in the end, need to be brought to life at the university-to-university level, but keep it in mind that the diversity of systems out there mean that many universities need approval from ministries or government departments before they can engage in partnerships, especially if year-on-year resource expenditures are to be factored in. Given this, many government officials, ministers (or equivalents), and some unexpected others, have power to shape relationship-building outcomes even though they frequently do not have an understanding of issues, like academic freedom, quality assurance, institutional governance, research and teaching outcome expectations, etc. All the more reason for communicating about who we are, and are not.

While hardly comprehensive, or  perfect, my read of A Guide to UK Higher Education and Partnerships for Overseas Universities leads me to believe that its authors and sponsors are attempting to provide a primer of this type; one for ‘overseas universities’ as well as the other actors who will have an impact on the partnership relationship-building process. It is also a reflexive piece; one that is  reminding those guiding UK universities to think about the taken-for granted factors that shape their practices and expectations. In the end, these kinds of communications objectives cannot but be positive, for failed or unrealized partnerships (and there are many the higher education sector) generate ample opportunity costs that we can scarcely afford.

Kris Olds

2 thoughts on “A primer on international partnerships

  1. There appears to be a focus now on reaching out to other countries. The conference in Taylor university, talked about Breaking through cross cultural understandings and competency building for global leadership. It is great how this is accomplished through the strategic planning process of partnership and programs. We can see the efforts, even in the reforming of the university’s mission statement.

  2. The issue of internationalization has come a long way in a short amount of time. The switch from recruiting internationals students to instead recruiting of international universities is an interesting switch in higher education. The complete conceptualization of this process and the successful implementation will be fascinating.

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