University Alliances often fail, but still have value

I have seen a lot of formal university alliances. They make big promises. I want to explain my experiences of how, although they almost invariably fail in their stated aims, they deliver in quite different ways, so are a good idea.

The stated aim usually goes like this: the grand challenges facing society, are so big, so complex, such wicked problems, that no single university can solve them alone. Collaboration and university networks are essential.

This isn’t true.

Of course, society’s problems are vast in scope, but if they are too big for one university, are they the right size to be addressed by two, or ten, or a hundred? Will the research outputs of a hundred universities, tied together in a three-legged race, have a better chance than one? Because Humpty Dumpty could not be put together by all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, does that always mean having more horses and more men is always the answer? No.

The truth is that, time and again, it is small groups (and though it is unfashionable to say it – sometimes individuals), rather than big alliances, that dredge up the very deep learnings that help humanity in its quest towards solving wicked problems. Most often research groups do include people from different universities, but they usually get together via informal, dynamic, bottom-up collaborations. Then the teams split up again when the work is done, so they are ready to join new groups for new projects. Sequential projects add up and deliver solutions.

Some people claim that a range of universities will be able to tackle different aspects of each problem. This is wrongheaded for multiple reasons. Universities that join alliances tend to be similar, not complementary, and most big universities are already  comprehensive, so they don’t often require partners. Finally, there is really no need for all the aspects of a grand challenge to be tackled simultaneously by people imprisoned in a forced collaboration. Lumbering, bureaucratically-heavy forced marriages don’t invariably add value in research.

The misunderstanding arises from a fundamental confusion between research and the implementation of research-informed fixes. Research is carried out via self-managed academic teams that dynamically swap experts in and out as each project develops. Implementation, on the other hand, does require big collaborative networks extending beyond the universities to include professionals, often from many industries. Research and implementation are different things, and while research is part of most university missions, the general implementation of fixes across society shouldn’t necessarily be the exclusive domain of boffins.

When it comes to teaching, university partnerships again promise more than they deliver. It makes sense for universities to avoid overlap in specialist topics, like foreign  languages and some areas of advanced mathematics. This is routinely done by agreed or ad hoc ‘cross-institutional credit’ arrangements and works well.

But joint programs can be more trouble than they’re worth. If the program is successful – then each university will typically end up going it alone, rather than negotiating complex deals to share revenues. If the topic is more niche, then interest wanes and the administrative costs of engaging in partnerships soon render the collaboration non-viable.

One might think students would love to have multiple universities listed on their  testamur, but mostly they don’t because it is confusing, and hopping between too many universities is socially dislocating.

Counterintuitively, one must also remember that alliances are actually anti-collaborative. Locking some partners in cuts others out. Sometimes flexibility is possible, but not always; so this can be a real issue.

So why do university leaders keep launching university partnerships?

There are excellent reasons. First, it counters the pervading criticism that universities are competitive to a fault. If you look at co-publication data you will already know that nearly every university collaborates most with its nearest neighbour (i.e. its potential rival). But people think competition means more to academics that cooperation, so initiating and celebrating university partnerships makes a lot of sense.

It can be very powerful in terms of driving visibility and gaining support from governments who need to demonstrate they are thinking of the whole community rather than one individual institution.

Sometimes geographically-localised alliances can be politically powerful, and having international partners can add genuine breadth and prestige.

Most importantly, alliances can support the development of expensive platform technologies, or libraries. Use can be maximized, impacts enhanced, and repair and maintenance covered, if there are multiple users. The ‘hub and spoke’ model works for research facilities. So alliances can be important in technologically-heavy big science projects like the genome project, and in areas like climate research where global data is important. Having a select club also allows co-investment that might not occur in informal collaborations.

Alliances can also promote the sharing of administrative knowhow. And the engagements can be fun.

It is also very reassuring as one discovers from colleagues elsewhere that many problems are shared across the sector, and not specific failures of one’s own institution. It’s good to get out a bit.

I recommend being involved in a few carefully-selected alliances.

With some sadness, I must add a warning though. Networks are also attractive to some as a means of sheltering mediocrity and avoiding accountability. Have a look and you will notice that the world’s strongest institutions tend not to bang on about alliances.

Alliances can add value, so you will keep hearing about them. The trick is to avoid over-stating their contributions, to focus them on shared infrastructure and knowledge exchange, and to ensure the quantum of investment is appropriate.

Professor Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality at UNSW.



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