by Shola Adenekan
For Tobias Green, a researcher at the Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham, working with colleagues from countries in Africa and Latin America is the norm rather than the exception. Dr Green is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow whose research concentrates on the Cape Verde/Guinea-Bissau region of West Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries. He believes partnerships with overseas colleagues matter because they help to create a sense of collective scholarship and promote a richer perspective.
"In past, and especially in the humanities, studies tended to have a legitimating position from the national ideological perspective," he says. "Such perspectives are no longer possible given the importance which international partnerships have developed."
Dr Green points out this can only be a positive thing and that from the scientific point of view, it is obviously important for researchers to be in touch with people working on new experiments in their field wherever they may be.
"It's genuinely a case of advancing both knowledge and mutual understanding and perspectives," he says.
For Chris Horrie, head of postgraduate journalism programmes at the University of Westminster, London, partnerships between academics and institutions from different parts of the world are a vital part of the public purpose of any university. These partnerships gain insights from around the world within the subject areas, and then spread that knowledge around the world as far as possible.
"There's an implicit and explicit deal through organisations like UNESCO that this is what UK universities will do," he says. "The idea is that if we give information to other countries in one area, we will receive benefits from other countries."
Dr Green and Chris Horrie are not alone. As higher education becomes internationalised, many academics are looking for serious commitment outside of their country of abode. At the institutional level, more and more universities are also looking overseas for more meaningful relationships. Faculty members and institutions say they are looking for co-operations that include multiple disciplines, along with institutional objectives, and even tackle such global challenges as HIV AIDS and clean energy.
How to develop partnerships
When looking to build overseas relationships, it is worth considering peers with different expertise or research areas, as well as academics from the developing world. Experts point out that some of the most profitable research partnerships are with colleagues who can offer something different yet complementary. Looking beyond Western Europe and North America, to countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America is a recommended step. For such collaborations to work, the partnership must, of course, be based on mutual respect.
This is a sentiment shared by the Indiana University School of Medicine, where a 19-year old relationship with Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya, has grown in strength and has now resulted in the development of a comprehensive AIDS prevention and treatment programme, helping almost 50,000 patients every month.
Prof Robert M. Einterz is associate dean of international programmes at the school, he believes the partnership has not only benefitted his Kenyan colleagues, but has also helped those members of his own faculty at Indiana.
"First, when academics from the US want to work with colleagues from countries like Kenya, they need to recognise these are tripartite missions and it is important we look at the goals and objectives of their overseas counterparts," he says. "Our obligation is to help them achieve their goals while we are achieving ours. Therefore, both missions should be in harmony, and there should be mutual respect and trust."
Problems that can arise
If you do begin collaborating you should be sure that you can deliver. It's also important to be aware of the fact that there are challenges in such cross-cultural co-operations. These include problems of competition over similar areas, and differences in email and communication.
"In journalism we have the highly specific problem of human rights and freedom of expression issues in many countries around the world," says Westminster University's Chris Horrie. "In the UK, EU and the USA, though there are other factors that do greatly constraint journalists - the press is legally free. In other countries, there is widespread censorship and intimidation of journalists. The issue is whether to adapt journalistic practice to conditions of censorship and conformity to 'official ideology' or not. I sometimes worry that some of the things we say and do in the UK, for example, criticising authoritarian regimes can place academics from abroad in danger."
Mr Horrie warns any academic from an authoritarian country wanting to work in the UK and North America in the field of journalism should think very carefully about these issues.
At faculty and institution levels, some academics may not see the importance of overseas partnerships. In order to counter this development, faculty leaders can start by fostering international partnerships themselves, thereby showing the benefits that can be gained from these partnerships.
"This is a big challenge that has to do with upbringing," Prof Einterz admits. "As faculty leaders we have to demonstrate to academic staff that these relationships can benefit the institution and students, as well as the financial bottom-line. In our case it took a bit of time before we saw these gains. These partnerships are upfront investments which will yield a return in the future."
Prof Einterz advises that linkages should start at the faculty level before they are passed down to staff and students.
At Westminster University, Mr Horrie says colleagues and faculty leaders have been extremely keen on overseas partnerships, but that the main barrier is usually a lack of finances.
"A lot of time is devoted in faculties these days to making applications for funding and grants for overseas students, and academics from various UK overseas development and diplomatic authorities. In fact, this has become a specialized job within the higher education sector."
While overseas partnerships are set to grow, institutions and academics must make efforts to move beyond handshake-and-paper agreements to more beneficial and long-lasting interactions, such as the one between Indiana University School of Medicine and Moi University.
Mr Horrie thinks that the internet will bring about much greater co-operation because a lot of teaching can be delivered online and student and lecture work can be developed and uploaded in any country around the world.
"It will be far less important to physically transport people to and from high cost locations such as the UK and US, and this is the main cost," he says. "The main constraint to international co-operation in academia is financial and if costs are reduced I'm sure that co-operation will increase proportionately and the process of research and teaching will inevitably be spread more evenly around the world to the great benefit of everybody."