Could 2022 be the year of partnership models, and should you get involved?

Universities must consider the positives and negatives before jumping into a student support partnership or signing up with an online programme manager

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RMIT University,Curio
25 May 2022
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Partnerships with outside companies can help universities if wielded properly
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In a post-Covid world, universities are up against increased cuts to government funding, ongoing skills shortages and many other issues that mean, for some institutions, competition for students is a means to survival. To thrive in these conditions, universities will need to move faster while ensuring their models for teaching, learning and student support are sustainable in an on-campus, digital, blended, hybrid and offshore world.

One way in which universities can survive and thrive in these conditions is through partnership models, which use additional workers, technology or services and can make the university nimbler during uncertain times and faster when opportunities arise to diversify.

This article looks at four examples of partnerships that already exist within the sector: teaching partnerships; learning design partnerships; student support partnerships; and online programme managers. We discuss the pros and cons of each type of partnership and provide example companies before addressing the circumstances under which universities should consider partnering and when services should remain in-house.

1. Teaching partnerships

Teaching partnerships are those where a third-party provider recruits, trains and/or pays teachers to deliver a university’s courses. This has also been achieved through industry partnerships where either an employer, such as Apple, assigns an employee to teach a university’s courses as part of their role in the company or, sometimes, when an industry partners with a university to teach niche skills.

Pros Cons
  • Potential to deliver specialised online learning experiences and grow a university’s online teaching capability
  • Reduces resources, i.e. time and costs, down to managing a casual workforce (including tasks such as recruitment, contracts, professional development)
  • Provides access to global pools of industry-relevant teachers
  • Creates roles with tasks that are specific to teaching and learning
  • Reduces teaching tasks for research faculty

Example companies include (in alphabetical order): Curio; Linc; OES.

2. Learning design partnerships

Learning design partnerships are those where a company sends a learning designer to meet with subject matter experts to produce a course for the university, or where an academic’s content is handed over to the learning design company to transform the course’s mode of delivery for the university.

Pros Cons
  • Offers efficient and best practice learning design expertise for online delivery
  • Offers speed to market
  • Provides industry-led subject matter experts to ensure learning materials are authentic and real-world
  • Logistics and processes for effective and efficient working partnerships take time to establish
  • Perceived loss of intellectual property by university staff

Example companies include (in alphabetical order): Curio; Fourth Rev; Learning Hook; Noodles; U2; Wiley.

3. Student support partnerships

Student support partnerships range from tech services that sit within the university support framework the way that Turnitin sits within the submission portal of an LMS, to the outsourcing of student support where students are telephoned by third-party companies.

Pros Cons
  • Can cover evening and weekend hours to support students worldwide
  • Provides peer-to-peer learning support via apps and technology (included in the service)
  • Provides guided academic support and feedback at scale
  • Service providers must be onboarded into the local context to ensure compliance and accuracy of role and information
  • Delivery of academic support may need university-specific quality framework to comply with regulations

Example companies include (in alphabetical order): Linc; Studiosity; Turnitin; Vygo.

4. Online programme managers (OPMs)

An OPM is a company that a university partners with for end-to-end programme management, which might include the marketing of programmes, student recruitment, admissions, software and technology, online course design, online teaching and student support.

Pros Cons
  • The involvement of OPMs is not always apparent to students, faculty, taxpayers or the government
  • Revenue sharing
  • Some OPM arrangements can carry risks to accreditation

Example companies include (in alphabetical order): Bisk; Keypath; Online Education Services (OES); Pearson; Wiley; 2U.

When should a university partner, or not? 

Of course, it is entirely up to universities whether to adopt or not adopt partnership models, and the examples above are not exhaustive. Universities need to look at the benefits and drawbacks in each case and consider in which contexts they have the comparative advantage.

Bear in mind that there is already a precedent for successful partnerships in higher education. In Jillian Fox and Carmel Diezmann’s research they found eight types of teaching and learning partnerships at work in Australian universities. These include university and stakeholder; academic and stakeholder; work-integrated learning; work experience; priority (industry) courses; partnership appointments/institutes; international engagements; activities and events (for example, advisory boards, industry expos, careers fairs). And this is not to mention the global reliance on university partnerships with OPMs, bootcamps and pathway providers, all of which surged during the pandemic.

Partnering isn’t a new way forward, but it does require careful consideration. Some useful points and examples to guide your organisational thinking on this topic include:

1. When a function doesn’t exist in-house and you need to move fast: when to partner is a question for universities to consider in the context of their institution’s specific skills and capabilities to perform a function in-house. If a function doesn’t exist within a university, then a partnership can both fill this gap and provide immediate expertise with little disruption.

2. When an existing function requires additional resources or scaling: even if your institution can perform a function in-house, it will need to consider the risks of resourcing and scaling within existing business-as-usual (BAU) functions. Additional work can detract from BAU and compromise the quality of the student experience, lead to staff burnout or require a longer lead time to train additional staff members.

3. When the function is only required to meet short-term goals: a university’s short-term and long-term goals will also be a factor, especially when considering logistics such as the length of a partnership contract. To address this, it’s necessary to be able to measure the risk versus reward and where the institution wants to be positioned with their goals in the short term (three to five years) and long term (five to 10 years). In the short term, there may be scope to partner with a fee-for-service model that can enable the university to build up a digital-functioning internal workforce. Fee-for-service models can also enable an innovative arm of the university to be established quickly in the short term and then evolve or transition into an in-house model in the longer term.

4. When it helps your students get ahead or stay ahead: some partnerships bring added value to your student experience. These can include enabling students to access higher education, additional support models while studying or better employment outcomes post-university. Have an honest look at your student experience post-pandemic, including the students you intend to attract and those students you are retaining. You may find you need to adapt your model to meet the needs of your cohorts.

Lastly, don’t miss the opportunity to learn from other universities that have taken part in partnerships. Reach out to other providers to ask about their experiences and read case studies to avoid reinventing the wheel. Sometimes you do need external forces – such as a partnership – to move the needle in order to be digitally agile and to achieve a win-win-win proposition for universities, partners and the student experience.

Dawn Gilmore is director of quality & enhancement in the Centre for Academic Quality and Enhancement at RMIT University. Chinh Nguyen is online programmes manager at Curio.

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