Shall we dance? Collaborations, Alliances, Mergers

Or Snog, marry, avoid? More universities are working more closely together

In one of its latest circulars (2012-21) HEFCE has published some new guidance on collaborations, alliances and mergers. It’s interesting stuff and timely given the context:

The pace of change in the HE sector is probably accelerating in many countries due to a number of complex and interacting factors, such as globalisation, internationalisation, the growing role of the private sector, increasing use of international rankings of institutions, and changing student needs and expectations. In England the new approach to the funding of teaching, and changes taking place to other major sources of funding, will also have a big impact on institutional behaviour, as will the renewed emphasis on placing students at the centre of the system. In various European countries and in Wales there have been major CAM developments, often actively promoted by governments to strengthen institutions and improve performance.

A clear, if rather simplistic, spectrum shows a range of possible partnerships from soft through to harder collaborations although there is plenty of scope for overlap here:

Continuing the rationale for this kind of activity, the paper also notes:

Institutions are being challenged as never before to reconsider their fundamental role, market position, structures, relationships, partnerships, policies and processes. They will need to continue questioning how they operate internally, engage externally with other institutions and organisations, and interact with the wider society. This raises the profile and potential relevance of collaborations, alliances and mergers as part of institutions’ response to the drivers for change. Nonetheless, institutions are autonomous and there is no question of a top-down approach in England.

There are some interesting case studies in here, ranging from the UMIST/Manchester merger, the development of what was Thames Valley University and the establishment of University Campus Suffolk. Although the emphasis is more on mergers than collaborations and alliances it is nevertheless a helpful guide and certainly reflects some dimensions of the Nottingham/Birmingham partnership.

A little more information can be found in this Prezi on the collaboration between the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham as delivered to colleagues at the recent AHUA conference.

Undoubtedly we will be seeing more collaborations, alliances and even mergers in future.

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.

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.

More on ‘groundbreaking’ partnership

“Midlands mutuality breaks new ground”

Excellent article in Times Higher Education about the new collaborative agreement between the University of Nottingham and the University of Birmingham

Two competing Russell Group universities are launching a groundbreaking partnership that will feature joint academic appointments, research, degrees and overseas ventures.

The universities of Birmingham and Nottingham, which collectively have about 67,000 students and 14,000 staff, announced their “framework for collaboration” on 3 February, unveiling a model that they believe could be adopted by other institutions.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, David Eastwood and David Greenaway, the vice-chancellors of Birmingham and Nottingham respectively, said they hoped the partnership – a first for UK higher education – would be driven by academic collaboration.

They said the universities would also work together on entering new international markets and did not rule out the prospect of partnering on developments such as overseas campuses – an area in which Nottingham, with branches in China and Malaysia, has long led the pack.

This received a goodly amount of press coverage including in The Guardian and the BBC. All very gratifying. But this is I think an important and interesting development.

Six areas have been identified for initial collaboration, with the potential for further areas to be considered as the partnership evolves. There isn’t a huge amount of detail in the press reports so the following supporting information may be of interest to some:

1. Joint academic appointments

Creative approaches to developing intellectual capital are at the heart of the partnership and attracting the best international minds to the UK in general and Midlands in particular is key.  Where appropriate, the Universities will seek opportunities to appoint staff jointly in order to better support collaborative ventures.

2. Teaching, learning and student experience

Both Universities are major innovators in teaching and learning and the student experience.  They will work together to share ideas for enhancing undergraduate and graduate opportunities at both institutions.  Ideas include the development of jointly awarded degree programmes, the sharing of facilities, widening participation initiatives and other means of improving the student experience.

3. Research Initiatives

Sustaining world-class research is fundamental to both Universities’ missions. Through working together, the institutions can deliver more and more impactful research in areas of mutual strength.  Ideas here include bringing together potential collaborators from both institutions, submitting joint research grant applications and sharing of research equipment. The Midlands Ultracold Atom Research Centre is one example of an existing UoB/UoN collaboration that operates this model.  Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to the tune of £6million, the research centre is investigating the interface between cold atoms, condensed matter, and optical physics.

4. International Opportunities

Birmingham and Nottingham are world-class universities, each with strong international vision and a significant global footprint. The Universities believe in particular in the value of international experience for students as part of their programmes and in preparation for sustained employability in the global marketplace.  Ideas include greater opportunities for student mobility and exchange, including through the Universitas 21 network and to the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus and the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China for years, semesters and summer schools. In fact, places have been specifically set aside for UoB students wishing to study at the two Nottingham overseas campuses.

Opportunities will be explored for working together in new markets with an initial geographical focus on South America – a joint mission to South America is already being planned for summer.

Collaborative international research opportunities arising as a result of the framework will be encouraged and supported.  International collaborative research ideas are currently being developed in the fields of energy, innovative manufacturing, water, neuro-imaging, genetics, and urban resilience.

5.     Business Engagement and Knowledge Transfer

The Universities, both individually and collaboratively, are major partners with business, regionally, nationally and internationally.  Developing further effective engagement with businesses, commerce and industry is a key component of both institutions’ strategic plans and will be further enhanced through collaboration.  The Manufacturing Technology Centre, currently being built at Ansty Park in Coventry to which both institutions are key partners, is a prime example of how experts from academia and industry will work together to push the boundaries of global manufacturing research and translation to innovation.

6.     Management and administration

Both Universities have a strong track record in delivering effective management and administration and building financial resilience.  The institutions will explore novel approaches to collaboration in management and administration to enhance our mutual capacity to respond to the new realities.  Ideas include shared IT solutions, joint approaches to procurement, sharing best practice in management of common problems and collaboration on professional development for staff.

So, these are early days yet but there is huge potential here.