Even university competitors are joining forces

The idea of universities collaborating with others around the world is no longer unusual but, increasingly, university faculties and schools are also forming alliances with their counterparts in other institutions to boost research output, improve graduation rates, attract students to potentially unpopular programmes and improve existing curricula.

The latest example involves three of the world’s premier pharmacy schools that have joined forces to create a 'PharmAlliance' – a five-year partnership their leaders expect will transform research, education and practice in pharmacy and the pharmaceutical sciences.

University College London, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Monash University in Melbourne are partners in the PharmAlliance. The three heads of pharmacy signed an initial five-year memorandum of understanding last week that will provide a framework for the creation of the partnership between their schools.

The three deans said they would work together to “transform education and curriculum development, pursue new and transformative research initiatives, and to enhance professional practice in pharmacy and the pharmaceutical sciences”.

“The partners will form new research collaborations that will enable them to more effectively and rapidly address major international issues in the fields of drug discovery, nanomedicine development and nanotechnology. The partners will have the opportunity to access research funds that each nation allocates for international research partnerships,” they said.

Professor Duncan Craig, director of University College London’s school of pharmacy, said the geographic and quality aspects of the alliance presented an opportunity for a global perspective on pressing healthcare issues.

“The possibilities afforded by the partnership are unprecedented, and we are very excited to begin exploring these activities,” Craig said.

Dean of the faculty of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences at Monash, Professor Bill Charman, said the alliance would address “the big issues” in pharmacy and the pharmaceutical sciences – those that could not be tackled by one institution alone.

“We have similar philosophies and ambitions for our field, and we see collaboration as the best means to rapidly and effectively address them in a global context,” Charman said.

He said that by working to inspire and train future leaders and practitioners of the profession on a global stage, the partnership would create new and transformative training, development and exchange opportunities for students and staff.

Professor Robert Blouin, dean of the University of North Carolina Eshelman school of pharmacy, said the strategic partnership would give the three institutions access to resources, talents and opportunities that no one school in one country could possess alone. “These are the leading pharmacy programmes on three continents,” Blouin said.

Competing engineering schools collaborate

In January, Canada’s top five engineering schools decided to stop competing with each and start working together to promote their graduate programmes. The engineering faculties at the universities of Alberta, British Columbia, Toronto, Waterloo and McGill University joined forces to form the Canadian Graduate Engineering Consortium.

The initiative has led to academic fairs at each institution for the various schools to showcase their graduate courses to current and recently graduated engineering students. These included panel discussions on the career benefits of advanced engineering education led by engineers with graduate degrees.

“One question that’s come up is why would competing engineering schools partner with each other? The schools were all aware of the apparent conflict,” said Bruce Hellinga, associate dean of graduate studies and international agreements in Waterloo’s engineering faculty, which initiated the consortium.

“We compete for students with all our peer institutions… but we recognise that we can work together to get this common message out about the need for graduate studies.”

Hellinga said one aim was to achieve full enrolments in their masters and PhD programmes. Engineers could usually get good jobs soon after earning an undergraduate degree and did not see the point of continuing their studies.

The consortium is now emphasising the greater professional and financial rewards for highly educated engineers in research and development, and the growing demand among employers for such professionals.

Expanding digital technology in the humanities

Elsewhere in North America, Iowa’s private liberal arts college, Grinnell, and the University of Iowa received a US$1.6 million grant last year from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation to develop humanities-centred collaborations to expand the use of digital technology among their academics and students.

This was the first time the Mellon Foundation had supported a collaborative digital project between a private liberal arts college and a public research university – institutions with different missions and strengths.

The project, titled Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry, aims to increase integration of digital resources into the undergraduate curriculum at Grinnell and Iowa over four years. The grant will support creative collaboration between the two and involve academics, post-docs, graduate students, undergraduate students, library staff, and IT technicians.

"The faculties of Grinnell and Iowa have different institutional environments but a shared commitment to scholarship, teaching and public engagement," said Erik Simpson, a professor of English and principal investigator for the grant at Grinnell.

Simpson said academics in the humanities would build their digital skills, develop innovative new courses, and collaborate with students on ambitious digital projects and research projects. The Mellon money would also support Iowa graduate student instructional technology assistants who would help lecturers incorporate digital technology into their courses.

Collaborative research in arts

The faculty of arts at the University of Sydney decided in 2010 to introduce a collaborative research scheme with grants to promote new projects that would encourage academics across schools and faculties to work together in emergent areas, and build research capacity in a range of different ways.

In the initial 2010 round, the research committee awarded grants to seven new collaborative research groups, naming 57 separate researchers spread across four schools in the faculty and including outside researchers from education and social work, law and the museums.

The following round in 2012 awarded grants to a further six new groups involving 58 separate researchers spread across five schools in the faculty and including researchers from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the faculty of architecture, design and planning, the Koori Centre (an Aboriginal group) and the Nicholson Museum.

As a result of the programme, Sydney now has eight research centres in its arts faculty as well as 19 research groups that range from early modern literature and culture to the archaeology of Sydney, the university research community for Latin America, the biopolitics of science and social transformation group, and the international migration group.

Improving graduation rates for the poor

Eleven US major research universities decided last September to collaborate in boosting graduation rates for lower-income students. They set out to develop and share proven strategies for increasing student retention and graduation, with Arizona State University spearheading the initiative.

One would think that the Arizona university president, Michael Crow, had enough on his plate, given that Arizona State consists of four main universities, plus a group of community colleges. But not so, he wants to “even the playing field”.

"Rich kids have a better chance of getting college degrees," Crow said. "We're going to even out that playing field so family income is no longer a predictor of college success. We're going to innovate together."

The 11 institutions in the University Innovation Alliance raised nearly US$6 million to create a national "playbook" of ideas that could be shared. US statistics show that about 59% of students earn bachelor degrees within six years but that students from higher-income families have significant advantages.

Wealthier families often prepare their offspring to go to college, Crow said, while lower-income and first-generation college students can have a harder time adjusting. A 2011 study found that only one in 10 Americans from low-income families had a bachelor degree by age 25, compared with half of all those from high-income families.

Crow was in Australia last week to discuss another potential partnership and deliver a keynote address at a Universities Australia conference. There the conversation among the local university vice-chancellors centred on the federal government’s plan to impose a 20% cut to their teaching grants.

Crow told The Australian newspaper that in the last six years, the Arizona State system had faced a 60% cut in its teaching subsidies from the state government. When he took over the system in 2002, the public cost of each student graduating was US$50,000 whereas it had now fallen to US$16,000, he said.

Far from decaying from the massive decline in government support, Crow said Arizona State was now stronger than ever. Echoing the goals of the innovation alliance, he said his focus since he became president had been to distinguish Arizona on two fronts: equity, so the student profile represented the state’s socio-economic profile, and research excellence.