Collaborate or compete?

Working together turns out to drive positive factors such as communication, productivity, trust and creativity. Here’s how to foster collaboration among institutions, faculty and students


25 Aug 2022
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Competition permeates higher education at student and faculty level. Fierce grade comparisons and the combative nature of university sport are often seen as hallmarks of campus life. However, studies have shown that encouraging collaboration could lead to greater achievement among students, as it provides learning opportunities beyond the classroom and introduces vital social skills such as effective communication, trust building and reciprocity.

One of the positive things to have come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is the need for universities to think outside the traditional academic box. As a result, competition among and within universities has become less relevant – instead, the collaboration model offers new possibilities and opportunities.

At faculty level, competition for limited resources often leads to mistrust and guarded behaviour that could sabotage collegiality among faculty members. At Macau University of Science and Technology (MUST), there is a strong academic culture that encourages collaboration, which includes designating research funding in support of collaboration among disciplines and with other universities.

Another form of collaboration at MUST is the course leader system, in which a senior faculty member collaborates with other faculty who teach the same course to discuss course content and learning objectives. The role is similar to a course controller but does not dictate course structure. Such a collaborative effort not only ensures consistency in the delivery of high-quality course content but also invites faculty members to work as a team and foster new ideas, which in turn enhances the learning experience for students.

Having a leadership that celebrates collaboration is crucial, but other factors such as shared goals, the use of collaborative technologies, encouraging open-mindedness, and building a strong sense of community all support a more collaborative environment.

Collaboration also lays the foundation for more open and involved discussion among both students and faculty staff. Here are five essential reasons for promoting collaboration:

1. The more minds, the better

Two heads are better than one, or the more, the merrier, right? The premise is that when we put our heads together, we perform better than when we work alone. We are also more likely to discuss ideas and generate new perspectives when more people are involved. Therefore, faculty and students at MUST are encouraged to join forces with one another to cooperate, brainstorm and work together on projects. This can serve as an opportunity to check for flaws and/or refine ideas. One important thing to remember is that effective communication and teamwork skills are often the real rewards of these collaborations.

2. Learning new things and having new perspectives

People from different backgrounds or disciplines see same thing in very different ways. A different perspective can help us understand a situation in a new light, to consider and learn from the beliefs and viewpoints of others. The ability to see from others’ perspective will also help reduce conflict and prejudice. Collaborating with individuals from diverse backgrounds, be they faculty or students, will therefore lead to new ways of thinking and creative solutions to a challenge.

3. You can’t do it all alone

This is especially true for faculty members engaging in research. A 2014 survey conducted in the UK found that more than 40 per cent of researchers feel lonely at work. Research collaborations may not only improve research output, but potentially provide an effective way to cope with academic loneliness. At MUST, interdisciplinary research projects and mentoring are key areas. Under the mentoring programme, freshmen students are matched with a faculty mentor to guide them while they adjust to university life. Similar approaches can be implemented through collaboration among students at different stages in their education (freshmen and sophomores, for example).

4. Promote collegiality to build networks and friendships

At higher education institutions, “collegiality” can be a criterion for promotion or tenure. The ability to work with others is a key social skill that enhances an individual’s professional life. Encouraging collaboration among teachers is a way that department heads can improve collegiality. In the Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Management at MUST, international faculty members are matched with faculty members from Macau or areas in Greater China, with frequent collaborations on research and teaching projects. New friendships are forged, and new ideas are created. One of the positive side-effects of collegiality is a higher retention rate of faculty members. It is true that happier faculty members tend to be more productive and will be more likely to stay put.

5. Increased productivity

Collaboration is often seen as a group effort and often a top-down directive. Environment is certainly an important aspect of collaboration, and a culture of collaboration with the goal of improving productivity may be even more attractive to faculty members. A collaborative culture can elevate productivity through the sharing of information and resources, mutual trust and respect, effective communication and the pursuit of a common goal.

Prioritising collaboration over competition has the potential to greatly benefit organisations, including higher education institutions. By focusing on fostering collaboration and cultivating a collaborative environment, MUST will continue to emphasise the importance of working together as a team rather than competing against each other, with the aim of supporting educational values and better learning experiences for students and faculty alike.

Kelvin Zhang is assistant professor and Ben K. Goh is professor and the dean of the Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Macau University of Science and Technology.

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