Competition and collaboration key to scientific progress

How can universities better navigate the relationship between competition and collaboration?

This will be the main question at the fifth Global University Leaders Council (GUC) Hamburg in Germany from 14-16 June, colloquially known as a “summer school for vice-chancellors”. University World News got a preview of the research paper commissioned to inform discussions at the gathering.

Professor Peter Maassen of the faculty of educational sciences at the University of Oslo in Norway, who led the study, also presented some of its main findings at a recent seminar held at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, hosted by the Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (SciSTIP) of South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and National Research Foundation (NRF).

The other contributors to the study were Jens Jungblut, Bjørn Stensaker, Rachel Griffith and Arianna Rosso, also from the University of Oslo. Their study looked at 27 universities in 15 countries – eight from Europe, six from Asia, four each from Africa and North America, three from Latin America and two from Australia.

The authors start by pointing out that scientific progress is based on the combination of both competition and collaboration.

“On the one hand, there is competition for the best ideas and research concepts, for the ‘best minds’ – from the student to the senior researcher level – and the competition for funding and reputation – for example, in the global rankings.

“And there is, on the other hand, the global exchange of ideas and research results, international collaboration on study and research programmes and the sharing of research infrastructure.”

However, the traditional forms of competition and collaboration in higher education and research have been transformed over the past few decades as the role of knowledge in innovation, economic growth and social change has become more prominent.

“Competition has become more intense, and its nature has changed, while new forms of formal collaboration between higher education institutions have emerged,” they point out.

Maassen unpacked this core statement systematically in his presentation, focusing firstly on competition.

Competition transformed

“It seems like universities are being sucked into a black hole of competition, vying for resources and status,” he said.

Besides becoming more intense, competition in academia has also changed, he explained.

“Whereas, competition has traditionally been between individuals and, more recently, also between countries, now we have competition between universities. That’s new.”

Universities competing for status is a global phenomenon, with status having become a proxy for quality.

Among the possible negative consequences of this kind of competition mentioned by Maassen is that universities develop specific strategies to increase their status, which are decoupled from their primary activities.

Unequal competition

“It is assumed this is an equal competition between equal competitors, but we all know this is not the case. The competition might be equal in the sense that all who qualify can participate, but the competitors are unequal in terms of their capabilities as institutions.

“If you look at the 25,000 or so universities and other higher education institutions globally, rankings, at best, include only about 1,000. So, what about the other 24,000?”

Left out in the cold, universities not in the rankings have not been successful in the global competition for status until now and, therefore, have little chance of competing for the most talented staff and students or the most prestigious competitive research funding.

Whereas, universities compete for status globally, the competition for resources occurs mainly at national level. That is where most universities vie for public funding and for staff and students.

One also finds, in a growing number of countries, so-called excellence programmes aimed at strengthening the research performance of selected universities. In this kind of competition, some universities shut down or cut the funding of certain disciplines to increase the chances of one or more of their other disciplines gaining excellence status.


Worldwide, “part of the whole rankings business has become an entertainment industry, complete with annual gatherings where prizes are awarded in the presence of the media,” Maassen said.

“This part of the ranking competition has become an aim in itself – with all the risks attached to it.”

Worryingly, this is happening parallel to a rise in nationalism, with science and higher education becoming part of the growing tensions between countries and political systems.

“Governments believe competition is good, based on economic theory. The assumption is that competition will lead to more efficient use of resources, encourage technological progress and positively impact the quality of education and research,” Maassen explained.

“But this is not necessarily true. We can have long debates, but there is mixed evidence for any of this.”

And yet, countries are taking all kinds of steps based on the assumption that it is possible to influence the status accorded to “their” universities, while there is no guarantee that this will succeed.

“The result is increasing ‘rankings scepticism’, as John Douglass of the University of California, Berkeley, calls it. A growing number of universities refuse to provide rankings agencies with data.”

Hierarchical governance

Maassen warned that participating in the global status competition between universities incorporates risks, including “decisions to push the institution in a certain direction, which can amount to a loss of autonomy and even academic freedom”.

Previously, universities were led by academics, with the administration subservient to senior academic staff. Now, executive structures are in charge.

“If you go through the literature on higher education, which has been around for a thousand years, the term ‘management’ was not used until the 1960s. So, it’s a relatively new phenomenon.

“We have seen the emergence of a university bureaucracy with its own professional norms, values and understandings of the functioning of the university, decoupled from the academic domain or just loosely coupled to it. And university leaders generally lack the capacity to compensate for the decoupling of the bureaucracy.”

Next, Maassen turned to collaboration in higher education and how it, too, has undergone fundamental change.

Collaboration transformed

“Traditionally, the word used for inter-university relations was ‘cooperation’. An institution would have several hundred memoranda of understanding, or MoUs, with other institutions, but these were typically driven by expedience and entailed a low level of commitment,” he said.

The involved universities merely carried on in an established direction, and their relationship was characterised by limited objectives, short time frames and little risk-taking.

By contrast, “collaboration requires mutual respect, trust, openness, shared decision-making and shared risk-taking,” Maassen said.

There is a trend from cooperation to collaboration because the context has changed. The world has become more interconnected, and global challenges have intensified, which have led to the emergence of a global science system.

Collaboration between universities is a more strategic notion than cooperation, entailing a “long-term commitment to working toward a vision or goal grounded in a common philosophy, resulting in something new,” he noted.

“Our study shows that strategic collaboration in higher education is strongly motivated by global challenges, like sustainability, climate change and inequality. For instance, the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations have become a strategic frame of reference for practically every university in the world.”

In the study, the authors point out that the commitment to sustainability potentially allows for a more effective way of communicating university achievements. Instead of presenting their place in rankings, universities could share their achievements in sustainability collaborations.

Maassen added that relations between universities in the Global North and South had become a dimension of collaboration that is receiving increasing attention. The emphasis is now moving to multilateral collaboration instead of bilateral cooperation, and to equitable partnerships in an unequal world instead of projects funded through development aid.

“The important question is what kind of university we need for what kind of society. Of course, different countries will answer it differently, but the underlying issue is the pact between universities and society. The traditional understanding is under pressure, so we are searching for a new pact,” Maassen said.

The 50 university leaders from around the world expected at GUC Hamburg in June will use the study, ‘Navigating competition and collaboration – The way forward for universities’, as a starting point for their discussions.

It is anticipated that they will formulate recommendations on how universities can both compete and collaborate better to provide knowledge locally, nationally and globally for the benefit of society.

The event is an initiative of the German Rectors’ Conference, the Korber Foundation and the University of Hamburg.