International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

RSS FeedRethinking partnership models

Posted on by Vicky Lewis

A new landscape and different relationships

A new landscapeWhen undertaking interviews for my Global Strategies research project, I asked what would be prominent (and different) in the next generation of UK global engagement strategies.

Almost all interviewees highlighted the changing nature of partnerships and the need for models to be rethought, based on deep consideration of how international partnerships can help institutions to achieve their – and their partners’ – overarching strategic goals.

Today’s blog provides an overview of the new partnership landscape and the new relationships that may be forged. It draws on Chapter 9 of my report – UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink?. (There’s an overview of all the sections and Chapters in the report here).

Holistic partnerships

International partnerships have become more prominent within UK university internationalisation strategies over the decades. In most turn-of-the-century strategies, there was only cursory mention of partnerships. The primary focus was on student recruitment and connections were rarely made between these two activity strands.

By 2013 (as reported by Vincenzo Raimo), 92% of universities cited ‘development / expansion of international partnerships’ as a priority. However, this priority was often addressed via a scatter-gun approach, resulting in numerous dead-end relationships, followed some years later by a rationalisation and consolidation process.

More recently, there has been a tendency to focus a high proportion of energy and resources on a small number of (what are described as) strategic partnerships. These are almost always with peer institutions. As one interviewee pointed out, ‘elite institutions collaborate with other elite institutions across the world’.

It was suggested by some interviewees that universities should now consider partnerships in broader and more holistic terms, guided by the values and priorities within institutional mission and vision. This might involve working with government or city authorities (as some institutions already do) to build multi-faceted relationships that extend beyond bi-lateral institutional links.

Such relationships would support the partner’s local ecosystem through agreed, targeted activities such as building research capacity. It would mean taking a less restrictive stance on which partnerships are designated ‘strategic’, opening up opportunities for significant relationships with institutions in lower income countries.

Drivers for transnational education

The role of transnational education (TNE) within UK universities’ delivery portfolios is being re-evaluated. This is linked to the consolidation process described above. Institutions have realised that having many, shallow partnerships, each providing for low numbers of students, makes little sense (from a resourcing, student experience or profile-building perspective). The long-term nature of the commitment required to build sustainable TNE partnerships is sinking in.

The pandemic has also served to reframe TNE. The prolonged period of travel restrictions has driven home the value of using TNE to take the UK HE offer to those students who want to stay closer to home (as many will, for both health and financial reasons) in the post-pandemic world. It also goes with the grain of existing trends toward greater regionalism and is a way to engage with the growth in the hosting of international students in non-OECD countries.

For interviewees, the drivers for engaging in TNE were manifold, though financial motivations were not high on the list. One interviewee described it as a long-term positioning strategy: ‘building relationships now so that we have the potential to do something bigger in the future… [and] to respond to as-yet-unknown disruptions to the global HE landscape’.

At a UK-NARIC (now ECCTIS) webinar in February 2021, Nigel Healey and Janet Ilieva described the potential of TNE to help with widening participation on an international scale; retaining talent in the place of delivery; contributing to the partner’s English medium portfolio; providing an international learning experience for all; fostering global citizenship and employability; building strong global research teams, or reducing environmental impact.

Flexible TNE developments

The general theme that emerged from the research was a broadening of the scope of TNE; a rebalancing of partner relationships (to make them more equitable); greater flexibility (and hybridity), and improved student choice. There was a noticeable expectation that there would be stronger collaboration with partners.

New international campuses would be more likely to be established as joint ventures rather than standalone operations. There would be more joint / dual awards and, generally, more curriculum-sharing. Programmes would include innovative elements such as the integration of micro-credentials, opportunities for student exchange (physical and virtual) and joint projects. Almost all interviewees expected more online delivery (where possible enriched by some face-to-face provision), though it was noted that take-up would be greater from students living in those countries where the regulatory environment (and technology infrastructure) is favourable for online learning. 

Some interviewees foresaw increasing opportunities for flexible TNE pathways, for example spending time studying at a partner institution, a branch campus or online in the home country before switching to the UK to complete a degree.

The move towards greater flexibility and hybridity begs the question of whether it is even helpful to distinguish between TNE students and ‘regular’ international students any more. As Vangelis Tsiligkiris argues, ‘we are experiencing an accelerated convergence of the different modes of higher education provision into one universal approach’ (which he describes as a ‘Global Delivery Model’). Ultimately, students are students (wherever they are based – and this may vary over the course of their studies) and education is education (wherever and however it is delivered).

Negotiating new partnership landscapes

Most interviewees saw competition for international students increasing, leading to new types of partnership with a broader spectrum of organisations. The role of the private sector was expected to grow, with ed tech platforms providing ever more powerful opportunities to optimise applicant conversion, facilitate peer-to-peer interaction and track graduate outcomes. Meanwhile, new breeds of agent aggregators (such as ApplyBoard) and pathway operators (such as MSM HigherEd) are rapidly taking root. Online Program Management (OPM) specialists were expected to be in high demand as universities rush to scale up their online provision.

New HE providers, including specialist online HEIs and international institutions seeking a foothold in the UK, were seen as potential competitors.

Although most interviewees thought it would be positive for there to be more partnerships and consortia involving small groups of UK HEIs, they struggled to see this happening in the student recruitment space (even though it could potentially serve to spread risk and reduce carbon emissions). Those based in England often referred with envy to the more cohesive promotional approaches they perceived in Scotland and Wales. One interviewee observed that UK universities sometimes appear to find it harder to collaborate with their peers in the UK than with international partners.

Some felt that the importance of global networks and consortia would increase, providing opportunities to develop activities around shared values and interests, to support multilateral mobility (important for the UK in our post-Erasmus era), to tackle common challenges and to help demonstrate institutional distinctiveness.

One thing is certain. The context for international partnerships is changing fast. New types of private sector organisation are already disrupting our traditional ways of working. At the same time, expectations are changing among our HE partners around the world – and among the students we serve in collaboration with them. UK universities will need to consider carefully how to optimise relationships in this new landscape.

Report download options

The full Global Strategies report can be downloaded from Global Strategies Report – April 2021.

That page also includes download buttons for the Executive Summary and for an Overview of key questions for HEIs to ask, as leaders develop, review and consult on strategy.

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