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

Pacific Rim views on global education: Hong Kong+Seattle

Editor’s note: this guest entry was kindly produced by Gray Kochhar-Lindgren (pictured to the right), Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, as well as Director of the First Year Experience, at the University of Washington, Bothell. During 2009-10, Gray served as a Fulbright Scholar in General Education based at the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong America Center. With Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, he is currently working on a book entitled Designing the Global University. Our sincere thanks to Gray for a tantalizing entry that sheds light on some of the opportunities and challenges of fashioning deeper forms of internationalization, especially those of a partnership nature.  This is an issue that Nigel Thrift also addressed in a recent blog entry (‘Internationalization is difficult‘) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as via recent comments he made in the Times Higher Education (‘Global future: together alone‘), and one that I will deal with via a series of entries about international collaborative (e.g., dual and joint) degrees this coming September.   Kris Olds


Having spent September 2009-June 2010 serving as a Fulbright Scholar in General Education in Hong Kong , I have now returned to my responsibilities at the University of Washington, Bothell, as a Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Director of the academic side of our First Year Experience. All the universities in Hong Kong are moving from three to four year degrees and UW Bothell started first and second year programs in 2006 and is now rapidly expanding its degree options. On both sides of the Pacific, curricular and administrative structural reform are moving forward at a sometimes dizzying, but always invigorating, pace. What are the connections and asymmetries involved in such an effort?

As in other parts of the world, a very similar language is emerging in both Seattle and Hong Kong around curricular reform, including the familiar rhetoric of student-centeredness; outcomes-based assessment; interdisciplinarity; writing, quantitative, and IT literacies; cross-cultural competencies; interactive pedagogies; and the development of new administrative structures that can serve the university as a whole instead of reproducing only department or College level concerns.

The most difficult challenges include how best to shape faculty participation in governance, teaching, and administration of the curricular shifts; how to change the culture of the university so that teaching is valued as highly as research productivity in promotion and tenure decisions; how to change faculty behavior toward more interactivity in and beyond the classroom; what forms trans- or interdisciplinarity teaching and research take; and, of course, how best to resource the curricular changes in terms of money and people.

In addition to these similarities, each site has its material and cultural specificities. It is, for instance, much easier to do student projects on different moments of urbanization in Hong Kong and on biodiversity of wetland habitats in Bothell.  The University of Hong Kong, where I was based last year, is an English-language institution, but the language politics of Hong Kong as a whole, which has Cantonese as its primary language and the use of Putonghua growing quickly, involves issues quite different than in the Pacific Northwest of the US. The global position of the US and the “one country, two systems” of Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, create different sets of questions for teaching, learning, and university reform in each case.

As an outsider-insider in Hong Kong there were always, and inevitably, blind spots I did not even recognize as well as a torrent of learning from daily life, reading, conversation, teaching, and the curricular work itself.  As we all learn to work more effectively across global sites, we would do well to think much more rigorously about our theories of cultural translatability.

Finally, there is the formation of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research groups. I am in the very beginning of this process, so I am immensely curious about how it will unfold. I am collaborating with scholars in Hong Kong, Seattle, Macau, and elsewhere to collect a series of essays on Global Noir, with its affiliations with cities, political economy, the tradition of the genre, and a reconceptualization of the concept of noir.

On a larger scale, I, along with Robert Peckham, the Co-Director of the Centre for Humanities and Medicine at HKU, are forming a research project called “Transnational Asian Cities: Health, Virtualities, and Urban Ecologies” that will involve scholars from multiple disciplines in Hong Kong, Seattle, Shanghai, and Mumbai.  How will we construct the object of study? How will we stay in touch? What types of new understandings will we produce and in what media? How will such effort be judged and assessed? Such questions must, in our globalized but still localized contexts, be asked time and time again.

All of these efforts, which are part of redefining the contemporary globalized university, require leadership, visibility, inventiveness, collaboration, faculty and staff development, and consistency of effort over time.  We will all have to learn to articulate spatial-temporal consistencies and asymmetries, a host of rapidly shifting variabilities of culture and language, and a series of nodes of Intensity where we collect, share, and move our work ahead. What, in other words, does “Seattle+Hong Kong” signify? How do we actualize the links as new curriculum and new university structures? How do we move back and forth across the Pacific? As with any organizational change at such basic levels, there are difficulties, frustrations, and successes, but the necessity for change is clear.  Ready or not.

Gray Kochhar-Lindgren