Barriers and Enablers of International Partnerships

In this article, we will summarise key insights and lessons about which factors contribute to (or hamper) the success of international partnerships. At the end of each section, we quote key lessons shared by individual partners.

Complementarity and diversity

In the reflections they provided, many partners emphasised the need for compatibility and complementarity in international partnerships. Being able to take advantage of existing (and proven) links and networks, to foster strong interpersonal relations, and to draw upon mutual levels of interest and motivation, are often vital to creating a successful partnership. Partnerships are sometimes built on complementary resources or talent pools, and combining these resources for mutual benefit requires high levels of trust.

Some partners placed special emphasis on the need to collaborate in a balanced way, on terms of equality – for example by having equivalent numbers of incoming and outgoing student or staff mobility – although many acknowledged that such equivalency can be hard to achieve in the early stages of a collaboration.

An alternative perspective was also offered: to take reciprocity as a principle but allow each partner to define its specific needs from an equal footing, so that the exchange is not necessarily of either students or staff, but a combination that reaches a win-win situation for both; balance is sought in a mid-term perspective in terms of impact, not necessarily flows.

By the same token, differences and areas of incompatibility are often cited as barriers to a partnership’s success, especially with regard to geographical distance (and time-zone differences), or with regard to prohibitive institutional, regional, or national regulations. Conversely, such diversity can also be productive: Ca’ Foscari University of Venice note that their collaboration with Soochow University (see Bilateral Partnerships) benefits greatly from differences in the two universities’ research cultures. 

Stellenbosch University
Good relations between International Office staff, and senior buy-in and commitment, are paramount to successful partnerships and strategic alignment. It is also important to operate within a framework that allows both agility and adaptation within the ever-changing HE landscape. Our partnership with Lund University has benefitted from strong support for engagement with Africa, on the strategic and policy level, at both institutions.

Babeș-Bolyai University
It is important to capitalise on the traditional roots at the base of a collaboration, such as in our partnership with the University of Regensburg. By the same token, partners must work to understand cultural differences when encountering communication problems. This enables the necessary communication between international coordinators and academic departments, so that universities can harness their mutual knowledge and work together on common topics.

Top-down and bottom-up support

Several partners reflected on the importance of senior buy-in to enable partnerships to happen, but also on the importance of embedding collaborations in specific departments, or even specific interpersonal connections.

The case studies we have gathered show a range of different approaches, from collaborations that start small, grow organically, and eventually receive high-level authorisation (e.g. Stellenbosch and Lund), to those that make use of high-level support mechanisms at national or EU level to engage in larger international projects (e.g. VUB and UCLV).

Most partners acknowledge the need for a balance between top-down and bottom-up support. Partnerships will always benefit from sympathetic (and consistent) leadership, policies, resources, and management, especially when these support structures facilitate initiatives on the ground that maintain individual connections.

The existence of a dedicated office or centre, in one or more of the partner institutions, is a clear illustration of this principle, as shown in the case studies from Gothenburg, Ca’ Foscari, and Babeș-Bolyai. However, as TU Dresden noted in their reflections, not all partnerships need to be administered by a central unit, and it is important for individual academics and departments to retain control over certain kinds of partnership.

Monash University
Well-functioning joint management bodies and strict governance models, with appropriate resources and senior buy-in, enable international partnerships to achieve:

  • Substantial research and education outcomes
  • Staff and student innovations (where the hurdles to collaboration have been reduced and a risk-positive environment is nurtured)
  • High volumes of mobility, e.g. with whole cohorts of students
  • Stable long-term partnerships that can evolve and scale to achieve more complex large-scale outcomes (e.g. involving industry, government, alumni)
  • Consistent messaging and engagement with the wider community, to prevent established collaborations from becoming ‘part of the woodwork’ and losing visibility
  • Clear metrics and review cycles

NOVA University Lisbon
Under the Bologna Process and the creation of a European Higher Education Area, opportunities for new partnerships and funding are easier to implement with European Higher Education Institutions. The limited incentive system for international academic cooperation on a global scale (as opposed to what exists at a European level), represents an obstacle to cooperation and exchange of knowledge with universities outside Europe. Additionally, the incentives for outside Europe are concentrated in regions where the interests of a few European countries are concentrated (e.g. Eastern Europe and the Balkans), making it more difficult to cooperate on equal terms with other regions of the world (e.g. Latin America).

Universitat Pompeu Fabra
It can be challenging to find common ground between partners and develop university-wide interdisciplinary projects, while balancing top-down and bottom-up approaches and providing incentives and structures to make the partnership sustainable. It is important to building trust at all management levels, which fosters communication and teamwork beyond the institutional walls. This in turn enables universities to:

  • React together when opportunities arise
  • Secure initial funding and complement with appropriate development calls
  • Harness the competitive advantage of innovative multilateralism with varied geometries
  • Distinguish between the benefits of transformative partnerships as compared to transactional ones
Breadth and focus

By definition, international partnerships involve broadening the scope of both universities’ activities, and most partners highlight the necessity to balance wide-ranging collaborations with a selective focus on areas of strength.

For some partnerships, it can be a challenge to promote an inter-university relationship beyond the small number of departments that engage at the start, and this can hinder a partnership from achieving substantial outcomes, visibility, and reputation. It is often crucial to a partnership’s sustainability that it operates at multiple levels of university activity.

On the other hand, broad-ranging relationships can be challenging to maintain, whether because the partner institutions are large and decentralised, because they are engaging with a range of different stakeholders, or because the administration and communication of a partnership’s activities – both internally and externally – become dauntingly complex. Such over-saturation can result in opportunities being lost in the mix or becoming ‘part of the woodwork’.

Many partners cite the challenges entailed by running joint degree programmes, and strong collaboration between professional services and HR departments can be important in making these programmes sustainable.

Université Internationale de Rabat
It is important to foster a diverse network of international partners to enable 360-degree institutional internationalisation. Participating extensively in Higher Education conferences and seminars is an effective way of promoting the university and enlarging the list of prospective partners.

Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Means and capacity are usually limited. In order to create impact, it is best to have institutional collaboration with a number of strategically chosen institutions. These partnerships should be a mix of peer-to-peer and capacity building (development cooperation) relationships. We learn from each other and there are a number of global issues that involve all parts of the world.

The University of Gothenburg
In our partnership with Fudan University, there is deep, meaningful involvement at every level (central, faculty, department). Collaborations are also in both education and research. It can be challenging, in a decentralised organisation, to secure this kind of widespread interest in a partner. Equally, there are strong department-based collaborations that would work well more widely, but don’t ‘reach’ central-level discussion. It is beneficial to work with partners that can generate interest at multiple levels and across education, research, innovation, and outreach.

University of Ljubljana
We focus on forming new partnerships and networks both regionally and worldwide, and expanding international education opportunities both at home and abroad (especially in the Western Balkans, south-eastern Europe and the Mediterranean). It is especially crucial to foster a mix of bilateral and multilateral partnerships, and to harness these relationships to exchange good practices.

Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
From our experience a transnational collaboration is more effective if it is long-standing, if it can rely on strong communication tools, if it includes several levels of activities at the same time, and if these activities primarily occur in person!

Other factors

Several partners highlight the importance of a risk-positive attitude, and a flexible, fluid approach to adopting lessons and implementing new practices, as contributing factors to the success of their international collaborations. 

Some partnerships have faced challenges when working with institutions outside the EU, or with regions undergoing turbulent political change, and considering such contextual information is an important task for those overseeing a partnership. These issues can make it hard to foster open dialogue between institutions, and can have other knock-on effects such as lecturers emigrating from a partner institution.

Kyungpook National University
With the shifts in ‘global power’ and changes in the health of national economies, the demands on universities are also inevitably changing. However, universities invariably take too long to adjust, and are often unaccountable for their failure to deliver. The essential nature of tenured positions tends to create isolated ivory towers that require minimal self-reflection or incentive to collaborate. Any international network is also a closely guarded secret by some academics.

While most university international partnerships tend to focus on student mobility (which is fine), the amazing stories and vivid experiences of the students all leave the university within a few years. So the memory bank is constantly short, relying on just a small number of academic or admin staff who have actually visited the partner universities. Instead, perhaps a higher percentage of resources should be strategically invested in academic/administrative international mobility (and even included in new academic contracts) as this would definitely have more long-term returns and could influence a wider range of students.

CY Cergy Paris Université
It is important to take into consideration local political changes, as a change of government or rector can negatively impact academic collaborations, as can crisis situations that force a university to focus on internal affairs (like the Covid pandemic). Continuous development of the relationship (to new disciplines and new forms of cooperation) can help to mitigate these risks. Establishing a multi-annual roadmap of activities can also be conducive to effective collaboration.

Technische Universität Dresden
The university must involve important partners during the planning process of new strategic initiatives, such as the creation of new research centres and clusters. After this, regular check-ins are crucial for partnerships to flourish in the long run, as are regular adjustments of partnership strategies.

The University of Warwick
The Higher Education landscape changes frequently, as does the political and economic context, which can both enable and disable effective collaboration. With this in mind, partnerships should engage all stages of the academic career pipeline, and should cover a range of teaching, research, and innovation activities. Technology plays an important role in maintaining these relationships (especially during a pandemic), but face-to-face engagement is also important for partnership development.