Leadership and Management of International Partnerships
John Fielden, CHEMS Consulting
Research Series 2.7, January 2011
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- This report has been commissioned by the agencies in Australia and the United Kingdom that are responsible for providing management development and training for university leaders. The aim is to explore what leadership skills are needed to enter into, and operate, successful international partnerships between institutions.
- The study has involved a literature survey and the completion of six case studies of partnerships involving Australia and the UK with each other, China or Malaysia. The case studies cover a wide range of types, for example:
• Two instances where the case study is a relationship between a university and a state government.
• An Australian case study illustrates how the leadership planned the internal and external aspects of disengagement from transnational education operations in several countries and managed to keep the partners content.
• Two case studies describe setting up offshore campuses with government partners in Malaysia and Australia.
- International partnerships can be started by: (a) a clear strategic decision at the top of the institution (b) a faculty or departmental level contact that is adopted by top management (c) a government-funded aid link that is developed into a larger collaboration and (d) a central or faculty response to an external invitation.
- It is often argued that the existence of a clear strategy should not limit the leadership’s flexibility in being responsive to opportunity. Opportunism should not be ruled out. Examples of this happening are shown in two of the case studies.
- Similar messages recur in the studies concerning the skills and competences needed to manage international partnerships and the same critical success factors are repeated. There is also a close match with the factors and attributes that our literature survey showed were needed for effective leadership. The case studies suggest that there are seven areas where university leaders at institutional level have key roles if international partnerships are to succeed.
- Setting the vision and strategy (or embracing earlier initiatives and bringing them within the strategy). In three of our cases, the vice-chancellor was the key person in developing and then promoting a new international strategy. The three included establishing an offshore medical campus, cutting down many of the university’s international links to focus only on four large strategic partnerships, and deciding to withdraw altogether from transnational education activities in several countries. In another case, the vice-chancellor’s role was to embrace a bottom-up initiative and build it into a much larger collaboration. In another, it was to respond positively to an unsolicited invitation from an overseas government and establish a campus offshore. A conclusion is that leaders must be able to develop and sustain their own visions, but also know when to support and seize other opportunities that may arise.
- Appointing able champions to develop and carry out the activity. The selection of the right person to oversee the operation of an overseas project or partnership is crucial. Clearly, it helps if that person is familiar with the country and the culture of the partner institution. He or she must also be able to face both ways within the home institution: toward the vice-chancellor and management team as well as toward the faculty, who will need to be involved.
- Obtaining support from administrators and faculty members for the partnership. Whether the HEI decides to focus on only few strategic partnerships or divert major resources to an entire offshore campus, many faculty members will feel threatened or worried that their own international connections will be downgraded. They may also be reluctant to embark on a project in a country that they do not know. In such situations, leaders have a significant persuasive task ahead, which cannot be left solely to the champion. Winning over professional support staff is equally important, as they may have to work with counterparts overseas—and, in fact, this may be harder than winning over the academic staff.
- Providing financial resources from central funds to create or encourage partnerships. In the case studies, we saw examples of leaders using central budgets to pay for academic staff to make exploratory trips to their partner institution; to establish training sessions in the language, culture, and practices of the partner country; to finance extensive due-diligence and professional expenses; and on occasions to pay the costs of staff travel from a poorer institutional partner. In one Australian university, the vice-chancellor allocated A$200,000 to each Faculty to fund travel to the partner university.
- Managing the involvement of the university’s Governing Body. Alarm bells may ring in the minds of many governors when they think about offshore activities or overseas partnerships. Therefore, the vice-chancellor must take care to involve them in such decisions at an early stage if the project is likely to have a financial or reputational risk. Not all Councils are sympathetic to international ventures and the vice-chancellor will need to brief members regularly and assure them that the project has been thoroughly researched. In one case study that we reviewed, a nervous Board commissioned a special audit of how well the exploratory and due diligence processes had been carried out. And in an Australian case, the chair of the Board visited the country and site of the new campus.
- Supervising the human-resource implications of offshore activity. Some challenging tasks include deciding whether the international venture will be staffed by the institution’s own faculty members, locally recruited faculty members in the other country, or international faculty members from the global market— and determining how to assure quality if people other than the institution’s staff are involved. Leaders will need to ensure that their institution has employment and reward policies that encourage faculty members from their institutions to teach and conduct research abroad, in the hope that when they return their skills will have been enhanced.
- Handling cross cultural differences. In all the cases we evaluated—including the one between England and Australia—cross-cultural differences arose. But we found that it is important to distinguish between personality differences, cultural and language differences, and institutional and bureaucratic cultures. The last are the hardest to overcome because the processes that are readily accepted on one side may seem ludicrously bureaucratic to the other. We saw many cases of that, but problems were usually resolved by the exercise of patience and cautious understanding.
- Leaders must be culturally sensitive and able to handle delicate negotiations in other languages and other environments. It is clear from the case studies that personal characteristics are important at the operational level of partnerships, but they can also be critical at the highest level, as the partnerships might not materialise at all if the chemistry between the champions on both sides is wrong.
- Having defined the most important skills, we should now qualify their universal relevance. This is because partnerships change over time and each stage calls for a different mix of competences. At the start when the partnership is being developed one set of skills is most valuable; when it is operational, another set applies, but when it has to change or develop (as it always will) a wholly new portfolio of competences may be needed. It would be a mistake therefore to assume that leaders require a common range of skills for all the partnerships they might encounter.