Accounting for global university alliances

Global collaboration through networks, alliances and consortia is a growing feature of the higher education landscape.

Some of these alliances are bilateral arrangements such as the Warwick-Monash partnership. This alliance, for example, was designed to establish both as ‘globally networked universities’.

The partnership was proclaimed as a way of helping meet student, industry and government demands for universities to produce graduates with a global education and generate research tackling strategically significant problems that no single institution could address.

Many alliances are multilateral networks involving members across several continents. The Association of Commonwealth Universities is a longstanding alliance dating back to 1913.

However, from the late 1990s there has been an emergence of a growing number of alliances designed to achieve intended strategic goals. Examples include Universitas 21; the Association of Pacific Rim Universities – both created in 1997; the Worldwide Universities Network established in 2000; and the League of European Research Universities founded in 2002.

The mission and activities that take place through each of these networks vary. However, they all share one characteristic: they represent something more strategic and substantial than a specific memorandum of understanding.

Through a range of different activities these alliances provide the framework and channels that make internationalisation a reality for both academic faculty and the student cohort.


Student exchange schemes provide a cultural and learning experience beyond the home university where a student is enrolled. They also add to the diversity of the campus by receiving exchange visits.

e-Learning initiatives such as Universitas 21’s online graduate management school 'U21Global' enable individuals anywhere in the world to access higher education through the internet. Mobility programmes facilitate researchers from different parts of the world with similar interests to collaborate on projects of mutual interest.

These schemes also bring together researchers from different contexts and cultures to address international issues, such as the Worldwide Universities Network’s ‘Global Challenges’ of research questions.

Alliance membership can also encourage universities in different parts of the world to share best practice on a range of issues, from curriculum design to governance.

The objective of a network can also place higher education in a regional geopolitical role. For example, the Association of Pacific Rim Universities’ strategic intent is to help university leaders contribute to the integration of the Pacific Rim community of nations.

This objective is viewed as complementary to the objective of governments in the region to create a community of Pacific Rim nations through the activities of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The association was founded to stimulate cooperation in teaching and research on issues of major importance to the Pacific Rim community.

Collaboration versus competition

An interesting observation is how international collaboration between universities is happening at the same time as heightened international competition in higher education.

The proliferation of university alliances has occurred just as the competition for academic talent and high fee-paying international students has intensified. Over the last decade attention has shifted from national to international rankings and a number of universities have opened branch campuses outside their home territory.

Considering this global competition, global alliances represent a curious form of cooperation.

We can see a situation where universities are simultaneously competing and collaborating at a global level. This can be explained as universities increasingly believe highly selective international collaboration is a component for success in competing on the global stage of higher education.

My own research uses the three concepts of ‘reputation by association’, ‘status signalling’ and ‘brand building’ to help explain the processes at work.

International partners are increasingly selected with great care as universities are conscious of who they are associated with. The geopolitics of alliances is also changing. For example, North American universities are increasingly seeking relations with research universities in China.

Alliances represent a valuable resource for ambitious university leaders. Accession to an alliance can provide an ‘off the peg’ and ready-made international strategy. It provides access to agreements, projects and exchanges through an organisation that others have already put considerable time and money into developing.

The small sacrifice of sovereignty over international strategy can be a price worth paying for the ‘collaborative advantage’ created through membership.

However, collaboration usually means compromise. Alliances can lead to presidential personality clashes as much as a meeting of vice-chancellors' views. And the more a network seeks to do, the more potential disagreements there will be.


I have never found a university that does not consider itself to be ‘international’ in some way. And the most ambitious ‘world-class’ universities see international activities as a priority area for investment.

Most students, academics and administrators see internationalisation as a legitimate or even necessary part of their university.

Alliances may be in the ‘direction of travel’ and an essential part of ‘the corporate plan going forward’, yet it is very difficult to measure and quantify the benefits of alliance membership in a meaningful way.

A study of the membership of three alliances revealed that these universities also moved up the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2003-2012.

Although statistically significant, this is correlation not causation. Justifying annual membership fees and the continual costs of taking part can therefore be challenging. The stakes are raised when there may be other, more attractive, collaborations on offer elsewhere.

This perhaps explains why multilateral alliances have a high membership churn rate. Changes in university leadership, market conditions and diverging expectations can result in withdrawal.

This can happen as early as one year after an alliance has been joined as a long-term commitment. Leaving a network is perhaps a more difficult decision, and a more revealing statement, than joining one. The lost investment and severing of established ties comes at a cost.

Looking forward, alliances will continue to change and remain a feature of higher education. New constellations of consortia will emerge in the future depicting the evolving ways in which globalisation is shaping the management of the modern university.

* Andrew Gunn is a researcher at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. He is also a visiting researcher at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government in Melbourne undertaking a research project with Professor Michael Mintrom.