Seven tips on finding and establishing international partnerships

An international partnership is like a marriage – once the courting is over, long-term compatibility is crucial, says Debra Hinds

Debra Hinds's avatar
27 Feb 2023
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International partnerships for universities

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Arden University

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Modern universities have numerous reasons for wanting to diversify, from broadening their means of income generation and widening access (perhaps reaching students who cannot physically come to the UK) to helping achieve their goals of decolonising curricula. Global academic partnerships can help achieve this.

Finding and establishing the right international partnerships can give a university global collaboration potential and reach without the need to establish campuses around the world. Partnerships can also offer a head start in regional markets and create more diverse student interest for the UK university.

Location, location, location

Location is key. Considerable sustainable resources are needed to establish partnerships. The first consideration is finding a location where students want and need your programmes, not just now but in the next five to 30 years. This often means not going where everyone else already is.

A report by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) shows that thousands of students are studying UK transnational education (TNE) in Malaysia. However, the market is likely to be flooded with in-demand programmes such as MBA, accounting and other finance options, so unless you have a unique offering or are a top 10 UK university in the World University Rankings, you are unlikely to attract much interest from students.

Be sure to look at a country’s geopolitical, economic, social, technological, legal and ethical environments. Remember that these are not fixed. Whether the country is developed or developing, keep scanning the horizon and prepare for adjustments. Think about how students will access and continue to access your curriculum. This should not put you off collaborations in unstable or economically challenged environments. In fact, UK TNE is often more highly sought after in countries that have faced or are facing political upheaval as a means of helping rebuild a country differently in the future.

Do, however, be prepared for challenges and setbacks wherever you operate. Is your organisation sufficiently agile in responding to unexpected changes? How did it cope with Covid? Your answer to these questions might give useful indication.

Partnerships are like marriages

As with affairs of the heart, you don’t marry just because you can or because someone likes you. You marry because you have the same vision for the future. Try to find that with potential academic partners – and within your own organisation, too. You will need buy-in from internal and external stakeholders. Try to find out your vice-chancellor’s views on international expansion and your potential choice. If you don’t have senior leadership support, change management in the rest of the organisation will be like moving an HGV with a bicycle.

Make sure you share a strategic vision

Once you’ve decided this could be “the one”, there will be full legal, financial and quality due diligence. Before you get that far, however, initial scoping and light-touch investigations will confirm whether or not you’re on the right path. Key considerations to investigate at this stage might be whether you are both committed to widening access, a good student experience and growth aligned to market changes and those of both organisations. If you’re not strategically aligned at this early stage, it’s better to fail fast and both move on.  

Quality considerations

Depending on the business model of a partnership (of which there are many), the student studying with a partner could well be considered by Hesa to belong to the UK university’s student body (and will thus be reportable in the Hesa aggregate offshore report). This means a responsibility to ensure that the student, who will not be on your campus, has an equivalent student experience to those who are. When establishing a partnership, be sure to check that the institution has the physical, academic and marketing resources to not compromise that experience. Data is obviously crucial, but it’s also important to value your instincts.

Seeing can be believing. The feel, the ambience and how staff and students react to you can tell you a lot. Most countries are easily accessible – so visit. There is no better judge than someone who has experience of your institution’s quality and standards, and knowledge of what good teaching and learning look and feel like. If this is not you, make sure they visit.

Speak to staff and students – if possible, speak to students without members of staff around. You’ll soon get a picture of how satisfying the student experience is. If the staff don’t let you speak to students without them, note this – is it an amber or red flag?

If you can’t visit, ask for a virtual real-time tour, and don’t be shy – ask to look in the cupboards and anywhere else you want to see on a live tour.

Will the relationship be quid pro quo?

A key characteristic to look for is trustworthiness, along with the host country’s appetite for compliance with the rule of law. A good partner will be honest and open with you from the off. If you’re discovering, as negotiations develop, that they’ve not been honest, that’s a red flag not to ignore.

Don’t be fooled by sales pitches with offers of eye-watering numbers of students. In the first year of delivery, unless you’re offering a unique programme in high demand with no competitors, or are Oxford or Cambridge, you’ll have to put in time to gain reputation and trust.

A more realistic candidate – and potentially less attractive offer – can often be a sign that a partner is worth working with.

Look for third-party verification

If a potential partner has a track record of offering UK TNE, even at a different level, they will have experience of working to Office for Students (OfS) or Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) standards. Through third-party data, you can often get a good picture of what an institution is skilled at. For example, student experience or feedback scores can show that an institution is taking measures to engage them. In addition, look for an external referee who can vouch for them (or not).

Setting up for delivery

Gaining institution and programme delivery approval is uphill, but you don’t reach the pinnacle even once the legal formality of contracts has been negotiated and signed. In fact, it’s the next step that will determine how smoothly the partnership will run: training for operational delivery and ongoing monitoring. Don’t assume you’re working with capable educators who will work it out – being hands off at this stage is dangerous indeed.

Organise a timetable of training, virtually or in country. The full student journey needs to be mapped out and the partner’s key personnel need support – from applications, registration and accessing learning systems to assessments, submissions and key contacts – delivered in real time so questions and answers can be meaningfully backed up with a comprehensive operations manual.

Ultimately, it’s crucial to remember that a partnership is not simply about taking your programme into a new country. Try to be clear with representatives from the other institution about what you want out of this other than a financial return. Remember that academically there’s much we can learn from the Global South, especially in terms of curriculum diversity. When you’re looking at potential partnerships, think about what you will get back from partners as well as what you can give to them.

Once operational, don’t forget those all-important date nights (AKA in-person visits). They are just as important as all the pre-partnership rituals.

Debra Hinds is associate pro vice-chancellor at Arden University, UK.

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