Universities are no longer the cloistered institutions of the past. The past quarter century has seen profound change – from the expansion of student numbers, removal of the block grant for teaching, periodic metrical assessments of research (and soon, teaching) as a means to distribute QR, the end of student loans and the imposition of an uncapped fees regime. In other words, marketplace competition has transformed the sector and will continue to do so with the unpredictable consequences of leaving the EU post-Brexit.
Universities now look to interact across the private, public and non-profit sectors, working to build sustainable, reciprocal and widely beneficial partnerships in industry, technology, government, public policy, intelligence, NGOs, and many others, across both humanities and STEM subject areas – with results that could not necessarily be achieved by any given sector on its own.
What are the implications of this turn outwards from the point of view of structure and governance?
Weigh the costs
All cross-sector partnerships have cost implications, representing as they usually do significant investment in resource (staff time and expertise, materials, overheads, space, among other costs). But set against these outgoings are the economies of scale and other efficiencies that come with importing expertise from elsewhere rather than training in-house, as well as the far wider benefits I discuss below.
Consider your values
Before partnerships can begin, make an assessment of each partner’s values and working culture. Consider their compatibility with those of your own institution, or of HE more broadly. Disparate values do not necessarily mean that a partnership cannot be undertaken, but it is important to be aware of these from the start and to have in place structures that can mitigate any clashes that might arise as a result.
Build robust foundations
At the heart of all productive cross-sector partnerships lies agreements that are watertight when it comes to issues of responsibility, delivery, and accountability. Agreements also need to be flexible enough to be reframed at key points throughout the partnership process (to bring in new partners, for instance, or to respond to shifting circumstances). So too legal obligations such as the ownership of intellectual property, copyright, and licencing rights, must be agreed from the very outset. Make sure that all partners are represented at any such foundational talks. Inclusivity is the first step in building the trust on which any partnership will survive.
Structure your team
Success in any cross-sector interaction will depend on establishing different responsibilities from the start. Flagship leadership may be key in setting up prominent partnerships, but no less important is the recruitment and retention of those who will be hands on throughout any partnership process and who will ultimately ensure its success. Be meticulous in establishing the fundamental staffing structure of any partnership.
Ensure good governance
Agree from the outset what the governance structure of the partnership will be (self-governing, audited externally, led by one or other partner, shareholder-driven, etc.). Consider how staffing will be distributed across the sectors, and what the mechanisms for dealing with development, promotion, retention and recruitment will be. It is very important to establish where the responsibility for these and other performance management mechanisms lie. Shared monitoring procedures for the partnership’s progress and delivery are also essential to put in place in order to mitigate any potential misunderstandings and/or conflict and to develop positive and non-confrontational interactions.
It is important to consolidate trust between partners as soon as possible. Ensure your partnership has a series of events that engage team members from across the sectors. In addition, make sure your event has some public-facing elements – this will help in building legitimacy across the wider community.
Remember the wider context
Cross-sector partnerships can help universities by casting new light on the institution’s resources, capacities, and potential. Internally, they are ways of developing staff, building initiatives, and growing networks of knowledge and communication. Externally, they embed universities deeper in society, positioning universities as norm-setters, and enhancing the legitimacy of university expertise.
But most of all, cross-sector partnerships work best when they aim to benefit the wider community and are not just about profit or special interest needs. With their powerhouse R&D, communication, and expertise capacities, universities can lead the way in combining expertise from a variety of sectors to solve complex social and even global problems.