I previously described my experience of, and reservations about, the needless competition between universities for students and reputation. In this section I want to discuss the benefits of collaboration rather than competition. If the higher education sector were to take collaboration seriously, it would provide the potential to redress the mission of universities and tackle many of the problems I have identified. In this and subsequent sections, I outline some practical steps that could be taken by, within, and between universities.
We should start by adding collaboration as an important and measurable educational outcome as an attempt to change the culture within educational organisations. At its simplest level, preparing graduates to work as members of a team would seem to be an important way to ensure that a university education is relevant to the realities of the workplace, where teamwork is a key feature of most industries. If educational programmes within universities have elements of collaboration, this might sow the seeds for wider collaboration within and between universities. There is a great deal of evidence of the power of collaboration, and many excellent examples within the higher education sector, so what I am proposing is not a new concept.
I have been part of a number of research collaborations within and between universities, and one major educational collaboration—the International Clinical Epidemiology Network (INCLEN). INCLEN was a formative experience for me, only partly due to the fact that the grant brought me to live and work Australia. The Rockefeller Foundation funded three (and later four) universities in different countries to provide the educational components of a programme aimed at building capacity in what has come to be termed Evidence Based Medicine. Individuals from 26 universities in Africa, Asia, India and Latin America, from the disciplines of medicine, statistics, health economics and health social science were set up in multidisciplinary units on their return from training. The units then performed collaborative research and developed their own educational programmes. From a small start in 1980, INCLEN (www.inclentrust.org) now comprises core functional units in 89 academic institutions in 34 countries.
The INCLEN programme demonstrated collaboration at three levels: between the education providers in three countries, between departments and disciplines within the educational programmes offered by these providers, and between the various academic disciplines in the units once established in the home universities. Although the programme and its results demonstrated to me the power of collaboration, it needed an external agency, the Rockefeller Foundation, to start and maintain it—for 21 years—before it achieved independence. As we consider the evidence for the power of collaboration, we can also think about the drivers and enablers of collaboration—there are not too many Rockefeller Foundations.
Kezar (2005) has documented some of the early research in this area, and I am using the quote to set the scene: “…researchers have documented the benefits of organizational collaboration including greater efficiency, effectiveness, and perhaps most important for higher education institutions, it can enhance student learning. In addition, accreditors, foundations, business and industry and government agencies have been espousing the importance and value of collaboration for knowledge creation and research, for student learning and improved organizational functioning. As a result of both the external pressures and the known benefits, many forms of both internal and external collaboration have begun to emerge nationally. For example, in terms of external collaboration some campuses partner with local businesses to increase their teaching pool and internship potential and provide needed labs and materials for conducting research. An example of internal collaboration is the formation of cross-disciplinary learning communities that bring faculty and students together to study an issue, capitalizing on intellectual capacities throughout the institution for teaching. Similarly, faculty have begun to form multi and interdisciplinary research centers to address the pressing problems of our times and student and academic affairs divisions are working together to deliver joint programs and services.”
In this section I go through the various types of collaboration that might be relevant.
To start—can we collaborate within an individual university?
You would think that this is easy, and that working with your colleagues towards a common good would be a high priority. There is even a substantial literature about how to collaborate effectively. There are some situations where it is essential for academics to work together, for example when a department wants to design a new course. However, collaboration is not always easy or fully understood by the academics: Newell and Bain (2020) have studied the perceptions of a group of academics engaged in course design about how prepared they were for collaboration. They report that “The existing research also indicates that a complex matrix of personal, professional, social/cognitive and organisational factors are crucial to the effectiveness of team-based collaboration” but that “…participants reported that current conditions at the institutional level serve as inhibitors to collaboration in course design. This included the absence of committed leadership and organisational supports for collaboration. Participants described the dominant culture as more supportive of individualised, competitive and hierarchical work practices. Under these work conditions, participants noted a reliance on individuals’ goodwill to collaborate in the absence of broader organisational structures and support….they did not express a depth of understanding about the cognitive and social capacities required for collaboration and the skills, structures and processes necessary to enable team-based collaborative practice”.
Collaboration in research is vital, as single person research is a rarity today with multiple skill sets required to tackle most problems. There are some rules that will make collaboration more productive, such as agreement in advance on authorship of resulting publications. Collaboration can be within or between departments and faculties, as well as broader as we discuss below.
For collaboration between departments, or faculties within the same university, the same issues apply, although threats to collaboration from competition for resources between departments are even more relevant than within departments.
But how to collaborate—what is needed?
Back to Kezar (2005) who describes a model for how institutions can move towards collaboration “The first stage, building commitment, contains four contextual elements—values, external pressure, learning and networks. Here the institution uses ideas/information from a variety of sources to convince members of the campus of the need to conduct collaborative work. In the second stage, commitment, senior executives demonstrate support and re-examine the mission of the campus and leadership emerges within the network. The third phase is called sustaining and includes the development of structures, networks, and rewards to support the collaborations.”
There are a number of software tools to aid collaboration online, highly relevant to today’s distributed world.
Can different universities collaboration with each other?
Mintz puts the need for collaboration very clearly (2019): “The most striking consequence of institutional competitiveness is the failure of colleges and universities to focus on the needs of the ecosystem as a whole. Many of the most severe challenges facing colleges and universities can’t be solved one institution at a time. Whether this involves improving enrollment of low-income and underrepresented students or increasing the number of non-traditional students who receive a meaningful degree, cross-institutional cooperation and collaboration, not competition, is part of the answer…The time has certainly come for a more collaborative higher education ecosystem with far greater sharing than is the case today.” He is calling for us to look at broader national needs for education, rather than just the needs of the individual university. This resonates with some of the points about national and global needs which I make elsewhere in this book.
There may be a number of ways in which funding bodies can promote collaboration between universities. However, there are also some structural barriers to collaboration between universities that could easily be overcome. An example of one of these is requirement by funding bodies in Australia to award the majority of the funds to a lead university, which can be a negative incentive.
I am pleased to say that there are some excellent examples of collaboration between universities. One example is the Biostatistics Collaboration of Australia http://www.bca.edu.au/ where six universities have combined to offer a master’s programme. The collaboration was established to meet a national and international skills shortage and was the initiative of committed teachers. The programme has been going for many years and has an impressive list of alumni, as well as industry support as many industries need the skills that this programme produces in its graduates.
Can universities collaborate with other organisations?
My focus and experience has been in the health field, where ‘industry’ collaboration is fundamental and students are trained for professions in a very clear way. There is clear articulation between the education and the profession into which students graduate. In many countries, student numbers are restricted in order to populate, but not overpopulate, the profession—although predictions of numbers of doctors required are often incorrect and emergency catch-up and recruitment from overseas have been required in the past. Although the assertion that there were more Malawian doctors in Manchester than in Malawi appears to be a myth, the story of how the UK and Australia for example have populated up their own health workforce at the expense of the lower income countries is quite a disgrace. Health professionals emigrate to greener pastures, leaving the countries who trained them with ongoing manpower shortages. This is not, of course, restricted to the health professions.
Leaving aside the difficulties in predicting workforce requirements and the corrections that need to be made, health is one of the particular professions where universities can point to a clear relation between education and workforce needs. The marketplace for students does not in general relate closely to the requirements of the workplace. Universities can claim that a university degree teaches generic skills including how to learn and how to think critically, which will be important for any profession. And global workforce trends are difficult to predict. However, closer collaboration between universities and industry, to discuss needs and appropriate educational outcomes, should lead to less unemployment of graduates and more education that is fit for purpose. The Biostatistics collaboration discussed above is an excellent example. You will see that this is a key component of the distributed university structure that I propose in a later section.
More broadly Mehling and Kolleck (2019) suggest that collaboration across sectors and with practitioners is essential for the sustainability of the university sector. Unless the university sector takes this seriously, it may be left behind by other providers who link learning to industry needs—for example Google career certificates https://grow.google/certificates/.
What about international collaboration?
This can be between universities in any setting, and most, where they exist, have involved research collaborations among universities at similar levels of expertise and development. The European Union has a very strong record of facilitating research collaborations among European countries and beyond—the goals of its research and innovation policy are ‘Open innovation, open science and open to the world are the 3 main policy goals for EU research and innovation.’ https://ec.europa.eu/info/research-and-innovation/strategy_en Many universities across Europe have been part of research consortia, and have partnered with like-minded universities and research groups across countries.
The ‘open to the world’ policy is stated to be increasingly important, with one of the EU Commissioners stating: “It is not sufficient to only support collaborative projects; we need to enable partnerships between regions and countries.” https://ec.europa.eu/research/iscp/index.cfm?pg=policy.
The EU also has a strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training, which emphasises collaboration between countries within and beyond Europe (https://ec.europa.eu/education/policies/international-cooperation/international-cooperation-and-policy-dialogue_en). There are many examples of international curricula and joint degrees.
This resonates with the Sustainable Development Goals, where goal 17, titled ‘Partnerships for the goals’, has the headline goal to ‘Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development’ (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg17).
Rubin (2017) tells us that “While many large universities collaborate internationally on research, very few have significant experience with intensive collaborative networking in pedagogy (the theory of teaching)” and he reports on an international initiative, COIL, where “teachers from two cultures work together to develop a shared syllabus, emphasising experiential and collaborative student learning.”
Joo and colleagues in ‘Unlocking the power of collaboration’ (2019) promote the value of higher education-focused networks “Oriented around the cross-cutting problems of improving student success and social mobility, enacting structural and cultural change, and managing overlapping organizational responsibilities, these networks develop and strengthen enduring relationships that iteratively generate new ideas and processes to tackle the most pressing postsecondary problems of our times.”
The OECD report ‘How international collaboration can help build the future of education’ (2017) states: “Collaboration is the key to finding solutions on complicated problems, and education is no exception. Through collaboration, people can build the collective intelligence necessary to address the world’s complex problems. International collaboration enables countries and decision makers to connect and come together to learn from each other, find common answers and work for the common good.”
We will discuss the importance of online education in a later section, but in relation to collaboration, the OECD report (2017) identifies the key role that online learning has to play: “Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of digital technologies is that they not only serve individual learners and educators, but can also build an ecosystem of learning predicated on collaboration. Technology can build communities of learners that make learning more collaborative, thereby enhancing goal orientation, motivation, persistence and the development of effective learning strategies”.
If we need it, we’d better teach it and add collaboration as a core educational outcome
There is a strong literature about the benefits of collaborative learning, although I am not aware of any evidence for the carry-over of learning collaboratively to professional practice. There would seem to be a logic to hoping for both this carry-over, as well as the idea that if collaboration is a highly regarded educational outcome, the organisation that provides the education would be stimulated to practice collaboration in the way it organises itself.
Scager and colleagues tell us (2016) that “Several decades of empirical research have demonstrated the positive relationship between collaborative learning and student achievement, effort, persistence, and motivation. Collaborative learning potentially promotes deep learning, in which students engage in high-quality social interaction, such as discussing contradictory information.”
Laal and Ghodsi (2012) define collaborative learning as “an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of learners working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product” and “sets out major benefits of collaborative learning into four categories of; social, psychological, academic, and assessment benefits.”
If we are to teach collaboration, there need to be appropriate educational outcomes identified. Bloom’s taxonomy has been in use for many years to help us define the outcomes we might expect at various levels of learning. Bloom devised his taxonomy of learning in 1956 and it was revised in 2001. In the pyramidal hierarchy, the 2001 version starts with ‘remembering’ and rises to ‘creating’ as the highest order skill. This classification has been very important in defining expected educational outcomes. For example, master’s degrees might extend to the ‘Analyse’ and ‘Evaluate’ levels, and PhDs to ‘Create’—the highest level.
Collaboration does not appear in either version, although a further revision to a ‘digital taxonomy’ did add collaboration as a separate element (Churches 2008). My suggestion is to add collaboration as a key component—and I have called this next version the ‘New Bloom’, as in the picture which shows each of the versions. I’ve put ‘Collaborate’ between ‘Apply’ and ‘Analyse’—so it is a quite high level skill which will be needed at each of the levels above it (Fig. 3.1).
Building on the theme of collaboration and reduction in competition, the next section makes a suggestion for a university version of the International Baccalaureate which has been adopted in the secondary education (high school) sector.