Unlocking the power of equal partnerships

The internationalisation of higher education is a key driver of innovation and is seen as indispensable for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, spearheaded by the United Nations. However, forging successful, equal and sustainable partnerships to realise these goals in the context of historical injustices and global structural inequality calls for a careful approach.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Addressing the opening session of the semi-annual meeting of the International Association of University Presidents, or IAUP, held in Cape Town in South Africa from 13-16 October and hosted by the Central University of Technology and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, on the issue of “Innovation and International Partnerships for Sustainable Development”, IAUP Secretary General Professor Alvaro Romo emphasised the need for successful partnerships to be “strategic” and have tangible impact.

Such partnerships were defined by “greater breadth and depth of impact” and were usually interdisciplinary, involving several academic departments, Romo told University World News. “A good strategic partnership impacts the local community in tangible ways,” he said.

Romo said the desire for meaningful partnerships had prompted the IAUP’s early involvement in the United Nations Academic Impact, or UNAI, initiative. Formed in 2010, the UNAI initiative aligns universities around the world with the goals of the United Nations, in particular the SDGs, and promotes a culture of intellectual social responsibility by using education, inter alia, to build global citizenship, advance peace, address poverty and promote sustainability.

Academic impact is gaining traction around the world, but understanding the complexity of the local context and guaranteeing mutual benefits were equally important when forging partnerships, particularly those between institutions from developed and developing countries, according to IAUP panellist Dr Nico Jooste.

Ubuntu – a new partnership approach

Jooste, who is president of the International Education Association of South Africa and senior director of the Office for International Education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, called for cross-border partners to subscribe to the value of 'Ubuntu' – the philosophy emanating from Southern Africa that recognises the relational value of humanity (simply put: 'I am because of you').

Describing Ubuntu as an “ancient global value”, Jooste said that it was only by recognising the other party’s needs first that it was possible to develop sustainable partnerships that produced mutual benefits and that closed rather than widened the structural inequality gap between countries.

“We need to enter into partnerships on the basis of mutual benefit and where no party dominates. Memoranda of agreement are thus not trade deals or legal documents protecting interests, but documents defining intentions,” he said.

Jooste also suggested there be more precision over use of the word 'partnerships' to describe all manner of cross-border activity, with deleterious effects on sustainability.

“We have blurred the boundaries between commercialisation, commodification and internationalisation. We talk about offshore campuses as examples of internationalisation, but that’s commercialisation and we devalue our whole internationalisation output and in the global South this is affecting the sustainability of higher education,” he told the meeting.

Instead of “global citizens”, he suggested the development of “globally competent graduates” – a cohort of people who understood the inequalities of the global society and worked against their replication, a tangible term which spoke to skills and attributes that can be taught and measured.

Driving innovation

In an exclusive interview with University World News Jooste argued that innovation was at the core of internationalisation and both were essential if Africa was to contribute towards meeting the SDGs. For innovation to be sustained in South Africa, the current international student presence of 7% to 8% should be maintained, he said.

“If international minds meet, innovation will happen… internationalisation forces us to think outside the box. It challenges both cultural and knowledge patterns,” he said.

He said the idea that one region on its own could power large-scale innovation and development was incorrect: “Africa cannot meet the SDGs alone. In fact, no-one can [work alone]. Silicon Valley was built on the efforts of international brains, and Europe did not become a modern economy on its own; that’s why they [Europe] are so anxious to recruit foreign students – they know that bringing minds together leads to a flourishing of ideas and innovation.”


However, even where there was some understanding and appreciation of the different contexts of respective partners, partnerships were frequently affected by insufficient funding or unequal funding, Jooste said.

“African countries, for example, do not fund internationalisation and partnerships; they do not put money aside to promote it, which means that higher education institutions either have to top-slice their budget in order to support internationalisation or rely on donor funding. Naturally, not all institutions are able to top-slice their budget, and donor funding is not sustainable.

“In the current context where university funding is declining, the danger is that universities are likely to cut back in those areas they believe are less important – and one of these areas is internationalisation.”

There was a danger that South African universities which currently enjoyed a reputation as reliable academic partners on the African continent would be negatively affected by funding cuts.

“Big funders will hold back and once we have a lull, others move into that space which is a very competitive environment. We can’t afford even a six-month lull,” said Jooste.

African contribution

Jooste said South Africa’s own contribution to driving innovation and human resource development through partnerships with the rest of Africa was significant.

In 2014, it was estimated that South Africa graduated approximately 1,900 PhDs per annum, of which 770 or 40% were international. A total of 15,600 or 8.5% of all graduates were international, of which more than 80% were from the rest of Africa. Unlike countries in the developed world, which have formal retention strategies aimed at international students, South Africa does not retain many of the graduates.

“They tend to return home and contribute to innovation in their home countries,” said Jooste.

As a result of this, there were high levels of goodwill towards South African academics and the higher education system.

“It’s difficult to put a monetary value on it, but we have created, through our higher education system, a unique engagement with the rest of Africa. We don’t spend enough time assessing the value of the outcomes, but I can tell you that when I travel to other African countries, I experience incredible goodwill towards South Africa as a result of these partnerships,” he said.

Defining equality

Jooste said, in his view, institutions in developing countries often did themselves a disservice by expecting the developed partner to bear most of the costs of a partnership because it had implications for the power dynamic within the relationship. “This runs the risk of setting up a hierarchy between the partners,” he said.

At the same time, a decision by both parties to waive fees in the interests of equality often fails to take into account the real cost of higher education in a developing country – including accommodation, meals, medical insurance, transport, etc – and the impact of differing currency values.

“So the question of reciprocity is more complicated,” said Jooste. “It comes back to the need for understanding context, and the need to create a level playing field,” he said.

Jooste argued for a “rethink” around how partnerships are entered into and developed.

“If we enter into the negotiation space with the idea of the ‘commons’ in mind – a negotiation space we enter under the banner of Ubuntu with a view to finding joint solutions and benefiting equally – the South will flourish as much as the North. If we don’t, then divide is growing and the partnerships cannot be sustainable.”