Forget the vision thing: academic input is key to international alliances

Report says day-to-day endeavours and staff links forge strong institutional bonds, writes John Gill

November 6, 2008

"Vision" may be part of the modern vice-chancellor's job description, but it only gets you so far when it comes to building international partnerships.

With sustainable alliances, it is the day-to-day input and endeavour of academics that matters most, according to a report.

The paper from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education says: "Vice-chancellors may sound the rhetoric for a new foreign partnership, but it is the academic faculties, as is the case with most important decisions in the academy, that determine whether an institutions is 'going global'."

The report produced by Tim Gore, director of the Centre for Indian Business at the University of Greenwich, analyses the burgeoning field of global research collaboration through the experience of the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI).

Mr Gore says in the report: "I am reminded of the story of a vice-chancellor who was briefing his dean of business on the opportunities of delivering an MBA to China.

"The vice-chancellor was ready to sign on the dotted line, and asked the dean what he thought.

"The dean replied: 'Other than the fact we don't offer an MBA, (and) it is unlikely we will be approved to offer an MBA here or abroad, I think your idea is splendid.'?"

The report adds: "C'est la vie when vision meets reality."

The central role played by well-connected faculty in initiating and championing alliances means that universities must know about and encourage international networking by staff.

Such links bring "enormous advantages", Mr Gore says in the report, by enabling institutions to act fast to transform weak alliances into stronger, institutional bonds when appropriate.

However, he adds that, just as institutions should be supportive of beneficial links, they must also be ready to "gently discourage" those that are not in their wider interests.

This requires strategic, "top-down" management of the "bottom-up" networking process.

One of the key lessons learnt from the UKIERI, which was set up to further links between the UK and India, is the importance of trust in developing lasting partnerships.

The report says: "Trust is the single most important factor ... and can only be achieved through prolonged contact and shared activity. Contacts and memoranda can reinforce ties, but are not enough alone."

Having set out some guidelines to help universities manage their approach to overseas alliances, the study warns that it is also important to have an exit strategy.

"Universities are excellent at creating things ... but notoriously unskilled at getting out of things," it says.

"Partner organisations are encouraged to negotiate the parameters of an exit strategy at the beginning of the process, not when it fails."

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