A guide to the dos and don’ts of international partnerships

Navigating cultural issues, considering local rules, establishing red lines and much more will be required if you are to create a strong partnership and protect both partners


Miami University
2 Feb 2023
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At the recent World Cup, the last-minute decision by the host nation, Qatar, not to sell beer in stadiums during games exemplified the tenuous nature of international partnerships and the ultimate sovereignty a national government has over activities within its borders, particularly when cultural expectations may clash. Higher education is replete with such partnerships and problems.

KAIST, a top Korean institution, announced plans to pivot from a branch campus in New York City to creating a strategic research alliance with New York University. The Global Innovation Exchange began as a partnership between the University of Washington (US) and Tsinghua University (China), focusing on international and interdisciplinary education and research in technology innovation. The University of North Carolina (US) partners with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (Ecuador) in the operation of the Galapagos Science Center on San Cristobal Island. 

Such collaborations have become increasingly common as universities seek to internationalise and expand their physical footprint around the globe. They bring both opportunity and risk.

Last year, the National University of Singapore (NUS) announced its unilateral decision to end the much-acclaimed Yale-NUS College in Singapore by 2025. Whereas, in 2015, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland backed out of a partnership with South Korea to set up a branch campus there, prompting calls for the South Korean government to pursue legal action for the financial losses they bore for the failed partnership. The threats run in both directions.

Yet, there are many reasons for international partnerships. In some cases, they are required. A foreign university could not set up a branch campus in Qatar’s Education City without agreement with the Qatar Foundation. In other cases, they provide local legitimacy and assistance with navigating the local environment, which is probably the case with KAIST’s recently announced relationship with NYU. While KAIST is an excellent institution, it is not a known name in the US, and New York’s regulations are complicated.

Such partnerships can also leverage the collective capacity of the two partners to do something each could not do on their own. In addition to needing to be governed by a local partner, the Galapagos Science Center is grounded in indigenous/local knowledge while bringing the expanded capacity of a leading research university. The Global Innovation Exchange, built around a joint interest in technological innovation, started as a partnership between leading research universities in China and the US to create a research infrastructure and graduate degrees leveraging the knowledge and culture of each institution while building the Sino-American relationship that neither could on their own.

It is likely that many institutions will continue down this path as they see potential benefits in terms of reputation building, talent acquisition, research expansion and/or enrolment growth. But will they intentionally consider whether the rewards outweigh the risks? What actions might mitigate the risks and optimise rewards? What can academic leaders learn from those who have already chartered this path? 

First, acknowledge up front that operating outside one’s home country is different than operating within it. This may sound obvious, but it is surprising how many university leaders have expressed concern that they have to comply with the rules and regulations of the government of the foreign country in which they are operating. Concerns over differences around cultural issues such as academic freedom and human rights tend to catch headlines, but local rules often dictate the nature of employment contracts, financial decisions, curricular requirements (if offering classes) and even how the local entity should be legally constructed and governed.

In some cases, such as Dubai, the government may establish a “free zone” to exempt foreign actors from local rules, but even then the institution could still be caught between different ministries fighting over authority. Enter every international partnership with eyes wide open, ask lots of questions, and be aware that you may be operating at the will of the foreign partner. 

Second, enter the partnership expecting it to end. Inevitably, the partnership will eventually finish, whether that’s because it has run its natural course, one partner wishes to withdraw prematurely or due to some other unforeseen circumstance. When the partnership does end, who is responsible for any outstanding financial liabilities? Who owns the intellectual property? What happens if there is an unfinished research project? Is there a teach-out plan for the students? How do you make sure staff in the foreign country are protected? You cannot mitigate all risk, but planning for the end up front will protect the institution and its constituents when the time comes.

Third, establish clear expectations and continuous communication check-ins up front. Any contract negotiator will tell you that it is important to determine rights and responsibilities at the beginning of the partnership. This is particularly important when partners can be hundreds or thousands of miles and multiple time zones apart.

For example, in the case of Monash’s (Australia) campus in Malaysia – a partnership with Malaysia’s Sunway Corporation – a contractual document essentially states that Monash has control over all academic issues, while Sunway has responsibility for day-to-day operations of the physical campus. There are also governance mechanisms to ensure that each partner has input but cannot unduly influence the domains of the other. When information asymmetry between partners becomes too great, distrust takes hold and will quickly erode the relationship and partnership. 

Fourth, establish your institution’s red lines up front. That is, at what point is the institution no longer willing to engage with the partner? Nearly all universities from the West have publicly stated that they will accept no constraints on academic freedom when they operate overseas. However, they inevitably accept some form of restriction whether that be on what is allowed to be accessed via the internet or what topics can be researched by local faculty.

It has not been unusual for both partners to make broader agreements up front on rights and responsibilities only to have the host governments slowly exert more restrictions once the institution begins to operate. The situation changed so much in China on human rights issues that it caused Inside Higher Ed to pose the question: who controls NYU Shanghai?

Finally, partnerships should be built on relationships of trust, shared goals and mutual understanding. Ideally, partnerships expand and grow over time. The Galapagos Science Museum is a mission-centred arrangement built on the partners’ “shared goal of promoting science and education that will help protect these fragile island ecosystems and enhance the lives of their inhabitants”. The Monash and Sunway relationship exemplifies an alliance built over time. Years before Monash entered into a partnership with Sunway to build a fully fledged branch campus, they worked on other projects together, providing the two partners the opportunity to work out differences and establish a working relationship. This made it easier to then scale up the partnership to develop a branch campus.

International partnerships are an important tool for building global engagement and intercultural understanding. It is impossible to predict all the situations in which a university may find itself or the various risks that need to be managed, but being clear up front about roles, responsibilities and the risks will help create stronger partnerships and protect the partners.

Jason E. Lane is dean of the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University in Ohio, US, where he is also professor of international education and founding co-director of the cross-border education research team.

Jessica D. Schueller is a PhD student in educational leadership at Miami University in Ohio, where she is also project manager of the cross-border education research team.

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