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Academic partnerships bring knowledge and drive economic growth, but success depends on good communications that build trust, says Tim Gore.

Strategic alliances are crucial to today's successful businesses— so much so that a product such as the iPod is the result of a complex set of strategic relationships, with its brand owner, Apple, not directly producing any part of it.

In business,alliances are seen as ways of reducing risk or exerting power and influence in a market. But alliances can also be a way to access complex tacit knowledge that is not easy to build or acquire in other ways.

For rapidly developing countries, such as China and India, alliances and partnerships in higher education have become an important way of acquiring knowledge to stimulate economic growth. Developed countries like the United Kingdom also recognise they need knowledge to fuel their growth, and look to China and India — with their rapidly growing academic and research capabilities — as obvious partners.

A good example

But creating successfulacademicpartnerships across national and cultural frontiers is challenging. In the first place, the institutions themselves are complex, multi-dimensional and often resistant to being led. Language, the subtle nuances of unspoken cultural expectations and distance are also hurdles.

The UK India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) holds some valuable lessons for countries wishing to support academic partnerships. It was established in 2006to rebuild educational relationships between the United Kingdom and India. Initially funded by the UK government, it has since also been supported by industry sponsors and the Indian government.

UKIERI has done tremendously well by creating over 475 new Indo-UK higher education and school links over the past two years. It operates mainly by funding competitive bids across a range of academic collaborations, judging them against criteria for impact, relevance, high quality standards and sustainability.

Bids for UKIERI funding undergo a two-stage review process that considers both the academic strengths of the bid as well as the synergy within teams and how the partnership will work as a whole.

Building trust

Trust has a big role in making such initiatives successful. Studies in Norway show that researchers seeking overseas links are often driven by academic rather than financial ambitions. In such situations, knowledge is power. And knowledge is difficult to acquire, especially knowledge that is not easily coded and where even the questions are difficult to frame, let alone the answers. Individuals only trade such knowledge under conditions of trust.

But institutions also have a role. For example, the success of the innovation cluster in and around Cambridge has been attributed to two types of connections, or 'social capital' — structural and relational. Individual researchers can easily create relational capital at conferences and through other academic encounters, but the structural capital comes through institutional links such as shared governors on a board. If we can create both types of relationships we can expect more robust and productive alliances.

To help build relational capital, UKIERI encourages academics to create individual links and provides mobility money for partners to spend time together. 

ButUKIERI also insists that institutions 'buy a stake' in the process. This ensures that the institution's strategic interests are taken into account. Bids for UKIERI have to be approved at an institution's most senior level, and must also demonstrate in-kind funding from the institution. This cannot and will not be done unless the institution involved is strategically committed to the project.

So UKIERI builds trust at many levels. The Indian government demonstrated their trust in the mutual benefits of the partnerships by co-funding the second year. Many partnerships have had to 'work on trust', especially over funding, which had to be channelled through the UK partner in the first year to meet UK audit requirements. The overwhelming majority of partnerships are doing well and producing strong research and academic outputs.

Good communication

Perhaps the most important element in a successful partnership is good communication. In my experience, partnerships that run into difficulties often do so because communications between partners are sparse and responses are slow, or do not happen at all. Problems may start where universities have a fragmented approach to partnerships, with authority for the various components resting in different parts of the university.

Additionally, aspects of the partnership are frequently agreed but then need to be ratified by academic councils or other internal quality processes, and this can cause delays. Very often, the other partner is not told the reasons for delays and may not understand why responses are so slow. This is accentuated across cultures — delays can be interpreted as lack of interest or respect. All these communication issues can erode trust in the relationship.

So partnerships should always have a clear leader to manage communications and keep in touch with all the processes on both sides. Being transparent and honest about internal mechanisms and timescales is especially important. The leader can also coordinate visits to and fro and ensure that these are fairly regular.

The UKIERI team put a lot of effort into nurturing good communications in partnerships. They organise events that ensure the partners work together and spend time together, and also help when partnerships get into difficulties.

It's easy to forget that human relationships are at the core of all our academic and managerial enterprises, and that these relationships need nurturing. Without the basic trust that good relationships generate, efficient management of a project and high quality standards will not be enough.

Tim Gore is director of The Centre for Indian Business at the University of Greenwich, London.

This opinion is based on an article published in GlobalHigherEd