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Turning Competition Into Collaboration

The following is a guest post from Malcolm Press, pro-vice chancellor and head of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, and Christine Ennew, pro-vice chancellor for internationalization and science and a professor of marketing at the University of Nottingham. The two British universities are working together to build programs in Brazil.
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Competition between higher-education institutions is commonplace. Moreover, competition in higher education is crossing borders as universities increasingly operate in a global market.

Universities strive for competitive advantage as much as corporations do. Individual academics and their institutions can be highly competitive when it comes to winning research grants and recruiting students and staff members. And yet both are open to collaboration when faced with the right opportunities. Scholars regularly work together on major research projects. And more often than not, academic institutions collaborate through a diversity of faculty and student exchange agreements with overseas partners.
Besides these types of focused, multinational collaborations, does innate competition deter universities from making more broad-ranging and formal institutional links within their own borders? For our two institutions, the answer is no.

Facing a new framework for tuition fees, major financial pressures, research concentration, and progressively demanding students, British universities are competing more than ever before. The Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham have many common features which lead us to be natural competitors — we share characteristics in being both large universities situated in the heart of England, have similar teaching and research portfolios, and we are both members of the Russell Group of research-led universities and founding members of Universitas 21.

Earlier this year, we took a bold step to form a partnership, effectively a strategic alliance, to work together in a number of key areas. Internationalization was one obvious area for collaboration, but both partners recognized the potential to work together in the core activities of teaching and research as well as in support activities such as shared services, staff development, and graduate training.

In terms of internationalization, we are establishing joint activities in Brazil, a country in which both institutions have historically had a low profile, and where both see real opportunities for developing research connections. The collaboration includes 20 full-fee Ph.D. scholarships annually for Brazilian students; a visiting fellows program and a $740,000 joint research investment fund with the São Paulo Research Foundation. We have persuasive reasons for pursuing this engagement, driven by the quality and ambition of Brazilian universities; the political and societal importance attached to education and research in the country; and the growing economic strength of Brazil fueled in part by its richness in natural resources. In addition, the U.K. government and many British companies are keenly interested in fostering closer relations with Brazil and, therefore, we feel our effort aligns well with these developments.

This type of collaboration enables each partner to bring its individual strengths to the table. This could be specific research expertise or in other areas such as student exchange and teaching links. For example, in the area of ultra-cold atoms and energy, Birmingham has expertise in optical lattices and nuclear energy and Nottingham in atom chips and bio-energy. Cost sharing is another obvious benefit from working together this way and the two partners are sharing the costs of operating an office in Brazil to support in-country activity. We are able to make efficiencies, not only in relation to fixed costs, but through sharing information we already have, and there is further potential to collaborate in relation to equipment and staff. The partnership also allows us to share best practices and to diversify income streams while strengthening both universities’ research and teaching offerings, and improving management and administration.

To be sure, this partnership does not prevent us from collaborating with other organizations and higher-education institutions. What is distinct about this model is the potential breadth of collaborative areas, depth of commitment, and the wide scope it provides for staff members to work together.

Undoubtedly, a strategic partnership such as ours is not a walk in the park. The first stage is ensuring the partnership is based on shared values, goals, and expectations. Without firm foundations there is a likelihood the partnership will fail due to divergent agendas. Furthermore, it is crucial to take time and effort at the beginning to get to know each other, agreeing what you are going to do together, and what you will pursue separately. For instance, we probably won’t collaborate on student recruitment in Brazil or elsewhere as we would be trying to attract the same type of student.

It is imperative for us to recognize that the relationship will involve give and take and some projects might draw more heavily on one partner’s expertise and resources than the other, but balance out overall. There is a need for us to be flexible in the way that strategies evolve and are delivered. We have fast-tracked decision-making allowing the partner who is most able to react quickly to a particular issue to take the lead. We do not underestimate the importance of communication and staff engagement. And we must build on collaborations that already exist – our top-down initiatives must complement, not undermine, the bottom-up developments that are already in place.

In measuring the success of the partnership, it is early days. However, there is a real sense of purpose around what we are doing. We hope what will follow will be additional academic collaborations, increased research income, and greater visibility in new markets. Overall, we need to be prepared to invest considerable time and energy working together and acknowledge that the effort may take a while to bear fruit.

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