Negotiating Space in International Academic Partnerships: Lessons from South Africa

The following blog entry is the first in a series of partnership-focused pieces related to IIE’s recent publication, Global Perspectives on Strategic International Partnerships: A Guide to Building Sustainable Academic Linkages. This series provides the book’s authors the opportunity to expand upon their chapter, react to another chapter in the book, or address a whole new partnership topic entirely.

“Negotiated space” might sound like a heavy phrase, full of conflict and difficult conversations. It is the phrase used by the American Council on Education to describe the process of developing ethical frameworks for collaboration in international higher education partnerships. I find that it is an apt term because it conveys a sense of agency in a common, co-created space. This is the space that forms the foundation for sustainable international higher education partnerships.

With the increasing pace of internationalization of higher education, there are concerns that there may be negative aspects to internationalization as universities in developing countries import curricula, systems and quality assurance frameworks from the established world. Academics and policy-makers are putting partnerships on their agenda in order to understand how to make them more sustainable and equitable.

There are many sources of advice on developing sustainable international partnerships; few explicitly focus on this negotiated space and what it looks like from the perspective of faculty and staff in developing countries. IIE’s recent publication on strategic international partnerships dedicates an entire section to the delicate but important negotiation of power in mutually beneficial partnerships. Full disclosure: I authored one of the chapters in that section and this blog provides a summary of my findings of a multi-site study in South Africa.

My experiences working in East Africa told me that international partnerships favored partners from more established countries because they held the purse strings and could therefore dictate the direction and scope of the partnership. However, South African faculty in my study were able to draw on significant financial resources to contribute to the partnerships that they valued. The South African government provides funding for international collaborations and faculty were able to draw on National Research Foundation grants to partner with others across the globe. South African faculty with established careers were also able to get funding from international sources such as the European Union or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As I did my research, Amartya Sen’s Capabilities framework kept running through my mind; individuals with the same set of means can have very different “substantial opportunities” to achieve their goals (Sen, 2005, p.153). Even though they were less dependent on external funding than my East African colleagues had been, South African faculty sometimes faced an “arrogant attitude towards a developing country” (Patrick, Research University). This attitude restricted their “freedoms” to achieve their goals. Patrick describes the ways in which this attitude can restrict substantial opportunities:

And it manifests in different ways. It manifests in the way that some of the collaborators will assume that they have the right, for example, to be placed at more prominent positions in the list of authorship, and so one kind of feels that the association with us as a developing country is one of tokenism and it’s convenient.

Patrick says this wasn’t the norm but most faculty members in the study gave examples where they had felt they were limited in their ability to steer the direction or mechanisms of the collaborative research or to get from it their desired outcomes, such as publications.

Faculty and staff in my study were also able to discuss partnerships that had been very successful. A number of them used the metaphor of marriage; whereas chemistry between partners was an important factor, communication and the development of trust were seen as the foundations for success. Faculty who had these substantial opportunities to negotiate the partnership space were usually more established researchers who aspired to become part of the global world of higher education researchers. They usually had the support of their institutions and because they had nurtured professional relationships of value to them and their institutions, were able to tap into these relationships to apply for funding or to provide mentorship opportunities to their students.

Faculty members leveraged their partnerships to benefit their institutions and their students in significant ways. They extended the resources available to their institutions by gaining access to partners’ labs or to dissertation supervisors for their students. Sen argues that:

Greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world, and these matters are central to the process of development. The concern here relates to what we may call (at the risk of some oversimplification) the “agency aspect” of the individual. (Sen, 1999, p. 18)

Faculty members who were able to exercise agency in their partnerships had usually studied or worked abroad and had established networks that they continued to build throughout their careers. They created opportunities for frequent interaction with their partners by hosting them at home or, for example, accompanying them on site seeing. They were able to develop long-term relationships through a process of informal interaction. This development of trust and understanding enabled them to move their partnerships beyond good intentions to explicit articulation of shared outcomes and strategies—to a negotiated space.

Naureen Madhani is an Adjunct Lecturer and PhD Candidate at New York University and writes about international higher education in her blog. She is the author of the chapter titled “Faculty Experiences of International Partnerships: Perspectives from South Africa”. Naureen is an international higher education consultant and has extensive experience in managing international partnerships and academic affairs in university settings in Pakistan and East Africa. She is currently a PhD candidate in Higher and Postsecondary education at New York University.