How to make the most of international HE partnerships

partnershipUniversity partnerships have become powerful vehicles for promoting civic and democratic engagement, cultivating international economic development and fostering teacher and school system improvement, among other aims.

In the current era of globalisation and internationalisation, partnerships are becoming more widespread and increasingly global in scale and strategic in focus. Partnerships allow partners to minimise the potential risks associated with internationalisation and better use limited resources. As such, strategic partnerships are often part of an institution’s broader internationalisation strategy.

Our multiple case study analysis examines how universities today are using partnerships to enhance their tripartite mission – that is, teaching, research and service – increase their institutional visibility and profile and extend their global impact.

Universities also use partnerships to engage faculty and students in joint research initiatives, academic exchange programmes, joint degree programmes, joint classroom projects and joint events like conferences and symposia. Other motivations for partnership formation include international funding opportunities and the potential to increase international student enrolments.

Partnerships may also involve community service projects, sustainable development initiatives, professional development activities and university-school-community partnerships to improve local schools and communities.

Regardless of the type of partnership, as noted in the World Declaration on Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century, university partnerships should be based on common interests and mutual respect.

With regard to international research, up to 80% of a country’s research impact is influenced by their research collaboration with researchers in other countries. For instance, researchers with international experience tend to produce the most cited research articles. Thus, partnerships can provide a powerful vehicle for researchers and universities to increase their research impact and build their international network and reputation.

Partnerships vary in the degree of complexity and oversight required. Formal agreements such as memorandums of understanding or terms of reference are often used to help minimise potential risk and conflict. Documents like these describe the purpose and overall structure of the partnership as well as the roles, responsibilities and goals of the initiative.

Once an agreement is established, then it is used to help build a strategic plan, which includes more detailed objectives, schedules and action items. The goals are often mapped to the discrete objectives of the academic department(s) and other administrative unit(s).

The plan also identifies how the partnership will be managed and funded. The plan outlines the who, what, where, when, why and how of the partnership. A plan helps ensure that everyone clearly understands “who is supposed to do what” as the partners move towards their goals.

Effective partnerships are based on good personal relationships between individuals. No matter how sophisticated the plan, reaching common goals ultimately depends on active engagement and dialogue between partners. Since partnerships can be resource intensive (in terms of time, coordination and funding), commitment, communication and cooperation by partners is important.

International partnerships, by definition, include participants from different cultures and institutions. Within this multi-cultural context, some discomfort may arise as participants struggle to understand different perspectives and customs. So, given the different cultural beliefs that may exist in international partnerships, it is important that all participants come together in a spirit of solidarity that is centred on shared values and a shared vision.

So, what are some of the most important principles for good partnerships?

First, notwithstanding the fact that certain people serve the role of project or programme leader to help facilitate the smooth operation of the partnership, leadership should nonetheless be developed and empowered in all participants. Effective leaders know how to share and distribute leadership responsibilities.

Second, effective leadership is focused on nurturing positive relationships and rapport among all participants through regular communication.

Third, effective leadership clearly defines concrete goals and activities so there is no confusion concerning who does what and when.

Fourth, effective leadership continually collects and organises information to better understand the progress made relative to the goals. Regular checkpoints are essential.

It is therefore important that partnership leaders know how to effectively unite institutional, departmental and individual agendas and perspectives in the pursuit of common goals and interests. To this end, university partnerships can provide an effective mechanism for building leadership capacity at all levels.