Do partnerships advance internationalisation?

It is taken for granted that cross-border university partnerships and agreements work to advance the cause of internationalisation and bring significant opportunities and benefits to students, researchers and administrators. We argue for a different approach.

Certainly agreements can create opportunities and might very well bring enormous benefit, but they are not fated to do so. In some cases agreements will not produce high-level engagement despite best efforts; agreement champions move away, research interests diverge, institutional priorities shift, funding diminishes.

Given the investments of human and capital resources that universities make in partnerships, it is common sense (though still uncommon) to question the returns, let alone devise and apply outcomes measures.

The University of Queensland’s partner engagement framework, or PEF, has been created to objectively assess the outcomes and impacts of agreements with more than 200 university partners. It is, we believe, a unique approach to the issue.

The PEF was born out of a directive to determine: “Who are our most highly engaged partners; our top 10? And how do we know? How could we apply a data-informed and evidence-based approach to this issue?” After all, we are a research-intensive university.

The difficulty in answering what seems like a simple question is that the ways universities engage will be as diverse as their individual efforts in teaching, research and service. International engagement is now a part of everything we do, particularly in research.

Developing indicators

To create the clearest picture of engagement we resolved to leverage existing datasets and information resources to bring together reliably reportable indicators of our international efforts.

These would be catalogued individually in a framework, rather than boiled down into a league table. This would provide a comprehensive view of engagement with an individual partner, and allow users with a specific area of focus to better access meaningful information.

Ultimately we developed 13 indicators for the framework, with these grouped into three broad categories of engagement: learning, staff and research. Indicators include data on student mobility, articulation, joint research programmes, jointly authored publications and funded collaborative research projects.

The information in the PEF has certainly answered the question of who the University of Queensland’s most highly, and broadly, engaged partners are.

But more than this, the framework can also reveal partners where the relationship has significant potential to grow, where the collaboration is strong, but in a specific area, and yes, those instances where there is little or no activity. This will help the university to determine whether current agreements should be maintained, expanded or, in a few cases, ended.

We gladly share our data and assessments with our partners. Through openness, fully laying out the nature of our collaborations, we can more ably discuss the ways in which these can further develop, and what resources are needed to support this.

In most instances, international partners have been most surprised and pleased to know how much we are doing together in the bilateral relationship and across these three broad areas of activity.

As with any dataset, the framework must be read carefully, and with an appreciation of context. We do not expect every partner to rate highly, or even score, in each indicator. Much relies on the intent of the agreement itself as well as the partner university’s location, its size and institutional priorities.

The list of the university’s most highly and broadly engaged partners is predominantly made up of, unsurprisingly, partners who are like us: large, comprehensive, research-intensive institutions in economically developed, English-speaking nations – that is, from systems that are already highly emergent and globalised.

This, of course, does not mean we do not have relationships with specialised universities, teaching-focused institutions or those in the developing world. Our collaborations here are valuable and important, but the shape that capacity-building engagement takes is significantly different, and can be more restricted in both scope and depth.

Different indicators may be required to fully capture developmental engagement – but that is for another day.

Global comparisons

The application of our methodology is not restricted to those institutions with which we already have an agreement. This exercise can be conducted to assess the university’s relationship with any other institution worldwide.

As such, the framework is of use to universities in assessing the viability of proposed agreements through determining the baseline of engagement. It is certainly much easier to build a partnership where there is already some activity, even at very low volumes, than where there is no activity at all.

We and colleagues at the University of Queensland have gained and continue to gain significant benefit from implementing the PEF and we endorse this approach for other universities, although with the advice to pay heed to specific institutional contexts. For other universities, the relevant indicators used are unlikely to be the same.

While the intent and general approach we have used is transferable, any specific collection of indicators will depend on a university’s own mission, whether it be focused on teaching, research or a combination, its international strategy and, most importantly, its data capabilities.

Before collecting any data at all, colleagues should first determine a list of those things that are important to measure in their own university. This is a task for senior international managers rather than the statistics unit, which may be too led by what it already knows to be available. Once this list is developed, the next step is to work with statistics units to determine a list of indicators that can be reliably captured.

The University of Queensland’s information resources, while comprehensive, are certainly not complete. There are many useful indicators we could not use due to a lack of data, or poor data quality. These included staff mobility of any kind, capacity-building efforts, joint laboratories, and student mobility outside of exchange and study-abroad programmes.

Universities implementing a framework should develop procedures to allow for the future collection of those data points that are not available currently but are necessary to guiding future engagement practice.

Universities with less centralised information resources may choose to undertake institutional surveys of engagement across any number of indicators. This approach becomes less practical as university size increases, and the University of Queensland did not take this approach for any indicator.

Next initiative

At the University of Queensland, the next initiative is a Country Engagement Framework that will look at the university’s relationships in a much broader fashion, incorporating links with governments and government agencies, research institutes and sponsoring bodies as well university partners.

We hope to provide a comprehensive time-series of the university’s activity in particular countries and regions of focus: a whole-country engagement overview.

Individual universities and education sectors as a whole can benefit from such efforts to capture and measure engagement outcomes, and from systems that allow for an informed and intentional approach to internationalisation and university engagement.

* Dr Anna Ciccarelli is deputy vice-chancellor, international, at the University of Queensland in Australia, and Grant Kennett is senior project officer at Innovative Research Universities.