On Meaningful University Collaboration

Collaboration Theory and Practice

There’s an exciting new HEFCE report out on the lessons learned from collaborations, alliances and mergers. It has also resulted in an exciting new acronym, CAM. In these austere times it’s good to know that we are still able to produce good acronyms. The report, available here, is also a consultation document which invites further comment and evidence from the sector:

Collaborations, alliances and mergers among universities and colleges have been an important feature of the higher education sector throughout its history, but relatively little information has been published on this activity. We have therefore published this study to help the sector learn from the experiences of others and improve the likelihood of success considering or implementing change. The information has been drawn from case studies in England and overseas, interviews, existing literature and other published information.

Sir Alan Langlands, HEFCE’s Chief Executive, said:

‘CAM activity might well continue to be part of the higher education sector’s response to change, and has the potential to provide opportunities for educational development, new research directions and greater effectiveness. However, any decision about change is a matter for institutions – there is no question of a top-down approach. HEFCE’s primary role is to safeguard the collective interests of current and prospective students and the wider public. In seeking to encourage the development of a more diverse and dynamic sector and supporting student choice, we will respect the autonomy of institutions and support them in any way we can.’

The CAM report coincides with the first anniversary of the University of Birmingham/University of Nottingham collaborative partnership, the marking of which was reported in the Times Higher Education:

Publication of the report came as David Eastwood, University of Birmingham vice-chancellor and former Hefce chief executive, gave his view on the sector’s future as the collaboration between his institution and the University of Nottingham marked its first anniversary.

Professor Eastwood told Times Higher Education that while Nottingham and Birmingham each had annual turnovers of around £500 million and were “financially strong”, there were universities with £30 million to £50 million turnovers “having to carry a lot of the same infrastructure costs that we do”.

“If we can see some issues from a combined operation of almost £1 billion, you would expect others to be in search – rather urgently – of those kinds of efficiencies.”

In their year of collaboration, Nottingham and Birmingham have jointly appointed an international officer to boost student recruitment in Brazil and established a £480,000 joint investment fund for research partnerships with institutions in Sao Paulo state. At home, they shared research equipment and won a share of £5 million to set up one of two national centres for ageing and pain research funded by the Medical Research Council and Arthritis Research UK.

Professor Eastwood said the collaboration had stimulated “a lot of interest both in the sector and in government. What we are doing will remain relatively rare, because it is relatively rare to have two big universities, financially strong, which over a period have built good relations. There will be other issues that move other institutions to alignments and mergers.”

Nottingham and Birmingham “have their own identities…and are not going to do anything that undermines that”, he added.

Nottingham vice-chancellor David Greenaway put the collaboration in the context of “diversifying research income streams – which is important to do in the current climate”, arguing that “there are resources out there, especially in the big emerging economies”.

Professor Greenaway said of the joint MRC funding: “I don’t think that would have happened without the collaboration. We probably would have ended up putting in competing bids – neither bid would have been big enough, strong enough, in its own right.”

He also highlighted the potential for the two universities to work together in pre-university education on “changing life opportunities in [the] two cities”.

(See also the University of Nottingham statement on the milestone.)

Another dimension of the collaboration, a research partnership in Brazil, was also reported recently on the Guardian Higher Education Network:

The ability to operate at scale has allowed us to develop 20 full-fee PhD scholarships annually for Brazilian students; a visiting fellows programme and a £480k joint research investment fund with the São Paulo Research Foundation. We have also planned a series of joint workshops in-country focused around energy (oil and gas, bioenergy), with further themes under discussion.

Alongside the benefits of scale are the traditional benefits of complementarity. Our collaboration enables each partner to bring its individual strengths to the table. We have found this could be research expertise or in areas such as student exchange and teaching links. An example of this is in the area of ultra-cold atoms and energy – Birmingham has expertise in optical lattices and nuclear energy and Nottingham in atom chips and bioenergy; both areas being of particular relevance in our links with Brazil.

Although it is still early, there is a real sense of purpose around what we are doing in Brazil. We hope what will follow will be additional academic collaborations, increased research income, and greater visibility. 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.

These are just a couple of case studies of how the Birmingham/Nottingham collaboration is playing out. It still feels like early days but there are some striking examples of how working together is proving to be mutually beneficial. This is very much at the softer end of HEFCE’s CAM spectrum but it is extremely fruitful for both universities.

Other universities have sought to emulate the success of the Nottingham/Birmingham partnership in the last year including Liverpool and Lancaster (although that does seem to have gone a little quiet of late). Most recently though Warwick and Queen Mary have announced a partnership. According to the Times Higher though they seem to be slightly at odds about some elements of the collaboration:

The University of Warwick and Queen Mary, University of London, could share lecturers as part of a new programme of research and outreach collaboration.

In a joint statement, the two institutions said “cross contributions to undergraduate teaching” by their scholars would “ensure that the universities’ students benefit from the partnership by having access to an even broader range of leading academics”.

Overall, the collaboration in teaching, research and widening participation “aims to ensure that both universities continue to thrive amidst the increasing uncertainty and pressures facing higher education institutions in England”.

A spokeswoman for Queen Mary added that the universities would share lecturers in third-year undergraduate history, English and computer science seminars, and look to expand to other subjects in the future.

However, a spokesman for Warwick stressed that no decisions had been taken, claiming that there were no specific plans to share lecturers.

This comes on the back of the international partnership recently announced between Warwick and Monash University in Australia which will be secured by, among other things, the appointment of a shared Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

So, everyone is at it and that HEFCE report is looking rather timely.

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Latin American universities get ranking

League tables breaking new ground

An earlier post noted the emergence of league tables in Latin America.

The Economist recently addressed this issue noting the emergence in particular of Brazil:

The São Paulo state universities that are pulling ahead of the pack are doing so with the help of generous state funding, which allows them to scoop up the region’s best researchers. They are also specialising. Brazil is emerging as what Demos, a British think-tank, describes as a “natural knowledge economy”: one that boosts the value of its plentiful commodities by the application of technology, such as making biofuels from sugar cane. That in turn makes it possible to gather a critical mass of researchers in one place.

The Economist also commented on the first ranking of Latin American universities to be published, by QS, and raised a few questions about its methodology:

QS relies much more heavily than the other ranking organisations on measures of reputation, which allows it to move swiftly into new regions. However, that carries the disadvantage of potentially over-rating large institutions, especially those whose names include countries or capital cities, such as the University of Buenos Aires or the National Autonomous University of Mexico. They have hundreds of thousands of students apiece and sound like you must have heard of them, even if you have not. Still, a start has now been made on opening the region’s universities to greater scrutiny. That can only help them to improve.

The QS rankings can be found here. The Top 10 is as follows:

1 Universidade de São Paulo Brazil
2 Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile Chile
3 Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) Brazil
4 Universidad de Chile Chile
5 Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) Mexico
6 Universidad de los Andes Colombia
7 Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) Mexico
8 Universidad de Buenos Aires Argentina
9 Universidad Nacional de Colombia Colombia
10 Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais Brazil

So, it’s a start and no doubt there will be much more to follow in due course as higher education in Latin America really takes off. And in this context it’s also worth noting the recent joint mission to Brazil by the Universities of Nottingham and Birmingham, as reported here in the THE.

Ranking in Latin America

New Latin American league tables emerging

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a league table developments in a number of Latin American nations:

The growing influence of university rankings has reached Latin America, with governments, news media, and private researchers drawing up domestic versions that they say are important for the institutions and students alike.

Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru each have at least one national ranking. Some were first published in recent months, and all use different approaches to evaluate their higher-education institutions.

A few, such as in Chile, are produced by news-media companies. Others, as in Colombia, were carried out by independent researchers. And some, like Brazil, are not so much rankings as government-sanctioned ratings.

Whatever their origin, they all serve a purpose that goes beyond boasting or one-upmanship, experts say. The rankings put pressure on lagging universities to up their game, and they give government officials, students, and parents a useful yardstick.

“Global rankings are very important. But there are close to 15,000 higher-education institutions in the world, and the global ranking deals with only 400, 500 of them,” says Kazimierz Bilanow, managing director of the Warsaw-based International Observatory on Academic Rankings and Excellence. “There are millions and millions of students who never think of going to Harvard. But they want to go to university and get an education, so they look at their own country. National rankings give them some guidance.”

The Brazil government rankings are intended to result in failing institutions being closed. The Colombian ranking uses a narrow range of indicators focusing on graduate student numbers, journals and recognised research staff numbers. Chile seems to have broader range of published indicators to draw on which are published by government including “courses most likely to lead to jobs, expected salaries on graduation, and space on campus per student”.

Whilst these national rankings seem to be having a local impact in some countries, it does seem that international developments are on the way with QS planning to introduce a new Latin American ranking. In time there will undoubtedly be more Latin American institutions in the global rankings too.

World Education: The New Powerhouse – Going Global 2011 §1

Some comments on Going Global 2011 – World Education: The New Powerhouse?

I was fortunate to be present at the British Council’s Going Global Conference in Hong Kong earlier in March. There were about 1,000 delegates there and as might be expected for this kind of event many of the presentations were high level and whilst some were pretty strategic others felt rather abstract.

There was a distinct UK flavour to some of the discussions and the particular current domestic issues relating to the new English fees regime and Tier 4 student immigration did intrude in a number of sessions. Despite this there was a lot which was of interest including some really good perspectives from other nations.

The opening session on “world education, the new powerhouse” (does this really mean anything?) had a number of set piece presentations from Ministers and then contributions from Hong Kong to Brazil to Africa:

Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen, Chief Executive of Hong Kong spoke about the idea of HK as a regional higher education hub. However, you get the real impression that they won’t be just another regional hub, but rather that they have the foundations, the location, the money, strong institutions and the real vision to do make this happen. Two other points of note here: first, education is the Hong Kong government’s single biggest spending priority and accounts for 25% of annual expenditure (25%!); second, Harrow School (yes that Harrow) is intending to open a branch campus in HK.

Professor Tony Chan, President of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Convener of the Hong Kong Heads of Universities Committee, spoke about the changing patterns of international HE and reinforced the commitment to the idea of a regional hub. Hong Kong universities are offering a real international education not the more traditional Eastern model. And, lest anyone doubt the intent here, he noted that HKUST was aiming for 20% international students, increasing international study opportunities for its own undergraduates and more collaboration with universities in mainland China. HKUST is still a young institution but is an impressive one and hugely ambitious: “We are in aggressive recruitment mode for international staff and students”.

Three other international perspectives of note here. Professor Olugbemiro Jegede, Secretary-General and Chief Executive, Association of African Universities, Ghana spoke about the challenges for Africa. It was a very long list and the challenges exist across the board. Collaboration and a continent-wide academic framework including mobility and mutual recognition is the way forward. He also noted the importance of using ICT to help the growth of HE in Africa. Ultimately this was an optimistic prospectus but the massive scale of challenges here remains rather daunting.

Dr Javaid Laghari, Chair of the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan, reported that Pakistan still has a long way to go to achieve its ambitions for having two universities in the world top 100. Pakistan was seeking to grow PhD numbers significantly, including through split PhDs with foreign universities. And all of this was happening in the context of being in the ‘frontline of the war on terror’. Again we were given an optimistic outlook but these are really challenging circumstances in which to be growing and strengthening HE.

Dr Carlos Alexandre Netto. President of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, gave a sense of the huge scale of HE in his country. With over 2,000 institutions but only a 15% age participation rate there is ongoing major growth in public university enrolments. Most HE students are at private universities though and growth in student numbers is actually being funded through loans for private university study. A major quality assurance operation now been through its first cycle. Overall, left with the impression of a system of extraordinary scale.

Between them Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, University of Exeter and President, Universities UK, and David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science, sought to paint a positive picture of UKHE. The THE report on the event notes the following:

Claims that the UK government is cutting funding for higher education are “not factually accurate” and gloomy media coverage is damaging the sector’s reputation overseas, according to the president of Universities UK.
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, told an audience of international higher education leaders at the Going Global conference in Hong Kong last week that the reality of the government’s funding changes in England was “rather different to the headlines”.
He also countered suggestions that fees for overseas students would triple and described the UK as still being “welcoming” to international students despite visa restrictions.
Professor Smith’s message on funding echoed that from David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who told the conference: “We expect universities to get the same amount of cash, if not more than they have received up to now.”

Both were therefore arguing there would be more money in the system, international fees would not be tripled (although the contrast with David Cameron’s assertion in China last year that international fees would actually be reduced to bring them in line with domestic fees was noted by the anoraks) and international students would continue to be extremely welcome in the UK (although this is somewhat at odds with the Government’s proposed Tier 4 visa changes). Willetts said he was embarrassed by small number of UK students going abroad and says Government was trying to help with this (but it was far from clear how this help would be offered). Steve Smith meanwhile added that the revised visa proposals which would be published soon would be good news for universities and international students. We’ll see.

World education may or may not be the new powerhouse but the challenges in some parts of the globe remain huge and in other areas the difficulties are self-imposed. Overall though there seems to be a strong degree of consensus that the future of HE is global.