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

Collaboration among research universities: a model from the US Midwest

barb20081Editor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly prepared by Barbara McFadden Allen. Ms. McFadden Allen has served as director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) since 1999. The CIC is a consortium of 12 research universities (University of Chicago; University of Illinois; Indiana University; University of Iowa; University of Michigan; Michigan State University; University of Minnesota; Northwestern University; Ohio State University; Pennsylvania State University; Purdue University; University of Wisconsin-Madison) located in the U.S. Midwest. Prior to that, she served as Director of the CIC Center for Library Initiatives. She is Vice President of the National Consortium for Continuous Improvement in Higher Education (NCCI), a board member of the Association of Consortial Leadership, and a member of the Global Resources Committee of the Center for Research Libraries (US). She holds an MLS from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

This entry should be viewed in the context of debates about the role of consortia and associations in enabling universities to achieve their evolving development objectives (e.g., see Lily Kong’s entry ‘The rise, rhetoric, and reality of international university consortia‘).  Given the nature of GlobalHigherEd, we are also interested in highlighting how many associations and consortia are involved in the process of forging global relations on behalf of their members, engaging with new actors in the global higher education landscape (e.g., Google, or international consortia like the Worldwide Universities Network), and acting as collaborative spaces for the sharing of ‘best practices’. We’ve also noted that consortia and associations like the CIC serve as logical ‘entry points’ into the US for stakeholders in other countries, or international organizations, who are grappling with the complexity of the US higher education system (systems, really). Given these emerging functions, it is important to understand the origins, core mission, and nature of effective intra-national actors like the CIC.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Academic isolation has long been impractical; in today’s world, it is impossible. At a time when yesterday’s bright new fact becomes today’s doubt and tomorrow’s myth, no single institution has the resources in faculty or facilities to go it alone. A university must do more than just stand guard over the nation’s heritage, it must illuminate the present and help shape the future. This demands cooperation – not a diversity of weaknesses, but a union of strengths.

Herman B. Wells (1902-2000). President of Indiana University 1938-1962. Leader behind the establishment of the CIC.

Throughout its 50-year history, the consortium of prominent research universities in the American Midwest known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) has sought to create a “union of strengths” as envisioned by the Presidents of the member universities back in 1958. With the recent launch of several large-scale, high-profile initiatives (a shared fiber-optic network; an agreement with Google to digitize 10 million library volumes; and a shared digital repository called HathiTrust), the CIC has demonstrated its understanding that in today’s networked world, no university can expect to achieve greatness while standing alone. The experience of the CIC may also be instructive for those wishing to develop meaningful and productive partnerships across international boundaries. It could also be argued that the deep experience of CIC universities with collaboration gives them a competitive advantage as attractive and sophisticated partners in emerging international research collaborations.

A half century ago, CIC leaders began building this model of open, productive collaboration that has helped our member schools navigate such complex issues as how best to preserve and provide open digital content in a virtual environment, how universities can hone core competencies while sharing collective assets, and how they can foster outside partnerships to accomplish even the most complex and costly shared goals.

block_logocmykThe framework established for this collaboration has remained remarkably stable: The Provosts (chief academic officers) govern and fund the enterprise; top academic leaders on the campuses identify opportunities and engage their faculty and staff to implement the efforts; and a central staff enables the collaboration by providing administrative support that minimizes the ‘friction’ in collaborative efforts.

Along the way, we learned hard lessons about the challenges to inter-institutional collaboration. The independent nature of scholarship and the inherent competition across higher education exist as natural hurdles to sharing assets and accomplishments. We compete with one another for students, for researchers and teachers, for federal funds and private partners. When our interests do converge, we do not always share the same priorities, timelines, or strategic vision.

Within the CIC, each collaborative agreement is unique, and necessarily builds upon the trust established through earlier efforts. Through the steady development of this inter-connected web of increasingly more sophisticated arrangements, we can point to some factors for our success that might be relevant for other universities seeking to develop international partnerships:

  • The peer nature of our universities allows partners to come in with similar needs and expectations at the outset;]
  • The long-standing commitments to the partnership at the very highest levels of university administration;
  • A focus on projects that clearly leverage efforts, thereby creating more value through aggregation or coordination;
  • A flexible, lightweight framework with an equal commitment in the basic infrastructure and governance, but with varying levels of participation in any one activity;
  • Leadership for efforts arises from (or is nurtured in) the member universities, thereby ensuring that only the highest priority initiatives are launched & sustained.
  • A willingness to be patient and a tolerance for some failure.

The success of many CIC projects and programs (some dating back 40 years or more), illustrate how the persistent, patient approach of the CIC offers both hope and guidance. Few of the most consequential agreements were easily reached. Many were the result of years, even decades, of revisiting common issues, assessing new technologies, and respecting the basic factors that make change difficult within any organization – spectacularly so when working across institutions. But we have made steady progress.

Certainly other like-minded enterprises have made similar efforts to pool resources. But the CIC stands as one of the very few that have both stood the test of time and that continues to innovate in the pursuit of our core mission – that of leveraging and aggregating the vast resources of our member universities for the common good.

Virtually every research university in the world is striving to identify their place in the broader, global context. And here it might be argued that it is virtually impossible to engage globally without partnerships (be they with other institutions of higher learning, or with communities, or governmental agencies). Our work in the CIC suggests that it is not just possible – but desirable – to invest institutional energy in the establishment and continued development of partnerships. There is a better and more meaningful way to launch and sustain efforts rather than the traditional ‘memorandum of agreement’ with which we are all familiar (and which are too often signed and forgotten). This requires an initial investment in the selection of the right partners, the identification of clear objectives that map to strengths among the participating institutions; and multi-level support from administrators, faculty and scholars.

There are many attractive and compelling opportunities for collaborating internationally. From building shared digital repositories that aggregate scholarly works, to co-investments in very large scale scientific equipment or laboratories that can be shared, to the shared development of courses and scholarly resources among scholars across the globe. Our experience in the CIC suggests that it is possible to realize the golden opportunities before us. To harness the great scholarly resources that universities command worldwide will require thoughtful, engaged, and collaborative leadership, and a recognition of the need for sophisticated mechanisms to manage, measure and sustain such efforts.

Barbara McFadden Allen