International collaboration in the higher education sector has increased rapidly over the past decade. Recent figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development show that between 2003 and 2012 the US saw a 33 per cent increase in the percentage of scientific documents produced through international collaboration, while more than 45 per cent of all scientific documents in the UK involved institutional affiliations with other countries.
The type and scale of these partnerships vary, but Ed Byrne, president and principal at King’s College London, noted that many university partnerships are driven by “gifted academics collaborating with their colleagues at different institutions across the world”.
However, he has predicted that a “new layer” of collaboration will increasingly develop, one in which “great institutions align their intellectual capacity and their capital resource into big international projects around education and research”.
Tackling global challenges
King’s College London, the US’ Arizona State University (ASU) and Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW) will on 9 February launch such a partnership, named the PLuS Alliance (taken from the locations of the three institutions: Phoenix, London and Sydney, with the “u” standing for university). The goal is for the universities to collaborate on research to help solve “global grand challenges”, such as issues around sustainability and health, and to create new ideas and technologies to reduce the educational attainment gap across the world.
“The scale of some of the issues we’re facing globally does not match up well with single universities in their traditional operating environments,” ASU president Michael Crow told Times Higher Education.
“Our three combinations of skills, settings, history and dynamics create a unique mix. It’s a way in which we can produce a new kind of university face from a fantastic group of faculty members.”
The alliance will initially be self-funded and will seed-fund individual large-scale projects, with the view to eventually becoming self-sustaining, he added.
Professor Byrne said that the partnership is “not a merger”; the universities will continue with their individual aims and operations, but will use the alliance in areas where “working together can clearly value-add”.
It will start with a team of 60 “outstanding” academics – 20 from each institution – each of whom will work on research that is related to sustainability, global health, social justice, or innovation and technology.
The scholars will be based at their current institutions but they will be given joint appointments across the three universities and “pretty much unlimited travel resources so they can move back and forth”, said Professor Crow. A small group of operational staff will also be based at a physical centre for the alliance in London.
Professor Byrne said there will also be scope to extend the alliance to include universities that are located in places where English is not the main language.
“I would well imagine we would have Chinese, Indian, African and South American institutions in this alliance in the years ahead,” he said.
The university leaders also have big ambitions to provide new technologies and joint degree offerings for students who do not have access to high-quality university education, because of either limited national capacity or relative poverty.
A new offering
Professor Byrne said the new degrees would be in addition to the current courses at each institution, mainly online-based and developed and approved by the three universities.
“They will definitely go beyond Moocs [massive open online courses],” he said. “Whether they will carry a separate degree from each institution needs a lot of further work. There may well be a new entity and a new label for these offerings.”
He said that these courses would be “developed in markets where we don’t currently operate, where there is clearly demand, where development of appropriate course materials is highly expensive and where one needs quite a large academic cohort to support the offerings”.
Professor Crow added: “All of a sudden you can say to a government in India or Brazil or any of the other BRICS or developing nations, we can now deliver some of the things you’ve been asking for, which is high quality, research-based programmes at scale.”
He added that he would also like students at ASU to have the option to take courses at the other two universities, which could involve student exchanges but also working with “highly advanced technology that is beyond anything you could think of, not just a screen with a person’s face on it”.
Ian Jacobs, vice-chancellor at UNSW, said students could also “decide on the timescale of their degree and blend online and being on the physical campus”.
He added: “I see this as a long-term venture. The education offerings will take some time to mature and to build in scale.”
The alliance is rooted in collaboration but do the leaders also hope that the partnership will stand them apart from their competitors in London, Sydney, Phoenix and beyond?
“We are not taking a competitive stance in any way,” said Professor Byrne. “Collaboration in London for us is crucial. International collaboration is also crucial and the two things enhance each other.”
Professor Crow added that universities cannot always be rivals. “We have to find ways to work together. That’s our principal motivation.”