International Partnerships: What Does it Mean to be Strategic?

Strategic international partnerships are a hot topic in higher education right now. Collectively, we seem to be moving away from an initial philosophy of “let’s sign as many MOUs with foreign institutions as we can,” to an approach that emphasizes careful planning, deliberate action, and attention to quality, depth, and sustainability.

Now that we’re headed down this path, however, the nuances of what we mean by “strategic” are increasingly important. At ACE, we’re having conversations with our members and program participants about this topic on a regular basis—these have helped us begin to unpack the term “strategic” and better understand its manifestations in relation to global engagement.

First and foremost, what constitutes a strategic international partnership necessarily varies by institution. International partnerships cannot be strategic in a vacuum. Rather, their significance and “strategicness” is tied to the overall strategy and goals of the institutions involved.

For a partnership to be strategic, it should contribute to and advance institutional strategy in some way. Has the institution identified particular academic or programmatic areas that it wants to further develop? If so, a carefully chosen partner abroad may be able to provide knowledge, resources, and expertise that can support this development. Are there countries or areas of the world that make sense as a focus for the institution, e.g. if there is a large diaspora community from which the institution draws students and faculty? Strategically, it could make sense to target these areas for partnership development.

For many institutions, scope, depth, and duration of the partnership have emerged as primary elements of “strategicness.” Partnerships that are labeled “strategic” typically involve multiple units on campus (in some cases, institutions set very defined parameters such as “4 of our 6 colleges are engaged”), and multiple activities (student exchanges, research collaborations, etc.). They are relationships with a long-term time horizon, a commensurate commitment of resources, regular evaluation, and deliberate efforts to introduce new activities and expand collaboration. These partnerships are overseen and coordinated at the institutional level; many colleges and universities are creating review committees to vet partnership proposals and evaluate them for their potential to reach achieve these characteristics.

A key question though—and at the moment, the one that seems to be capturing the attention of many of the senior international officers and partnership directors with whom ACE works—is how to balance top-down and bottom-up approaches to partnership development and oversight. If we define “strategic” relationships as big, multifaceted, long-term, with potential for expansion, what about small-scale, “bubble up” teaching and research partnerships that result from faculty-to-faculty connections? Is there a place for these in an overall global engagement plan?

My own thinking on this issue has brought to mind global discussions of “world class universities”—another hot topic in recent years. In considering the quality of higher education worldwide, we can look at the quality of individual institutions, but also at the quality of systems of higher education, and the extent to which the institutions that comprise a system collectively meet national (or subnational) goals. In a robust system, some institutions, for example, focus on research output and graduate training, while others are all about teaching and improving access to underserved populations. Missions and goals are clearly defined; together the set of institutions fulfill the array of functions and purposes of higher education and meet the needs of the national context.

Along these lines, as we wrestle with the meaning of “strategic” in relation to global engagement, maybe we should be thinking in terms of “partnership systems.” Perhaps a strategic partnership system for an institution is one in which there are a number of well-defined, complementary types of international partnerships—each of which entails different expectations when it comes to depth and breadth of involvement, resource commitments, and timeframe. Finding the right balance among types of partnerships, and sparking the interest and enthusiasm of as many stakeholders and possible by engaging them in different ways would be key goals. This builds upon the idea of a “partnership portfolio” that Susan Sutton noted in her 2010 article, “Transforming Internationalization Through Partnerships” but brings particular attention to how the various categories of relationships come together to form a coherent whole.

Big, enduring, transformational relationships would be the cornerstone of such a system, but faculty-to-faculty and program- or department-level collaborations that may never expand beyond the individual players involved would be considered an important part of the ecosystem as well, and valued for their role in furthering institutional goals and expanding the institution’s overall global engagement reach. While individual relationships and activities would certainly continue to be evaluated, the entire system would also be assessed holistically (and if necessary, adjusted) based on its health and performance, and how it is contributing to and advancing overall institutional strategy.

“Strategic” can be a meaningful term, or a buzzword; ongoing conversation and careful thinking about its definition and implications for global engagement will help keep it from becoming the latter. ACE is tackling these and other partnership-related topics in four upcoming installments of our web series, Internationalization in Action, which will be authored by campus experts. Stay tuned for more from us in fall 2016!