Sustainable partnerships are essential for academia

Forging sustainable, goal-driven partnerships – whether they are research-based, financial, technical or government-linked – is crucial for academia to meet the full mandate of higher education.

This was a key message from the African Higher Education Research Institute during a virtual conference about partnerships to support innovation in higher education early in November.

“Partnerships can be built based on objectives or motives, prerequisite skills, plans for impact by drawing on synergies, building useful ideas of interest and mapping out the right actors,” said Susan Kilonzo, an associate professor of sociology at Maseno University, Kenya.

On building sustainable research partnerships, Kilonzo observed that four entities make up the ecosystem and they are: academia (higher education systems); the media-based and culture-based public; the government; and industry, which consists of firms and NGOs.

Kilonzo said: “Sustaining the partnerships is a challenge and that is why most of them collapse within one year or two, hence the need for a proper checklist for partnerships.”

Partnership challenges faced by institutions include divergent priorities, for instance an unclear motive; lack of mutual respect for research output-ethics; incompatible time frames and bureaucracies within institutions and inter-universities.

Sustainable partnerships, she said, should, therefore, be built on a shared motivation where assumptions about the partnership are analysed, institutional structures are understood by identifying key players, there is stock-taking of skills and knowledge, and a mutual agreement on working together by sharing roles and responsibilities is in place.

Partnership barriers

“Models of partnerships consist of models with another institution, models within institutions, and person-institution models. In most cases, what we see in universities is a person-institution kind of model whereas, as a researcher, I get into partnership with a certain entity,” she said.

Can partnerships be fair and equitable? Kilonzo reiterated that it all depends on the funding, desired output, approaches to tackling challenges around equitability in research, emerging concerns over equitability, and agenda setters.

In his submission on bridging the research-policy divide through partnership, Dr John Obiero Ogone, chairman and a senior lecturer in the department of linguistics, languages and literature at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University in Kenya, highlighted that research and policy run parallel because of the partnership barrier.

“We need to surmount the partnerships barrier to forge a partnership between research actors and policy actors. In other words, partnership itself is the gap. When a partnership is also the missing link between researchers and the community of actors … what do we do?”

He added that academics need to fix the policy challenges that are existent in barriers that manifest themselves in administrative, structural, cultural, systemic, and programmatic ways.

Ogone said that institutions can go about collaborating by initiating partnerships around a critical issue with evidence to guide decision-making; employing researcher-initiated partnerships in which actors with a research idea can participate as collaborators; and co-conception of a research idea between both policymakers and researchers.

He added that partnerships between researchers and policymakers are relevant because they boost research impact, encourage consultations, and benefit both research enterprise and policymaking.