20|03|2012 - 11h42Brazil and beyond: inside Birmingham and Nottingham universities' research partnership
A year into their partnership, the two universities discuss the benefits of setting up a research institute in South America
by The Guardian.
Strategic partnerships in higher education have commonly been driven by notions of complementarity. This might be in the form of complementary skills and assets, the most common example being jointresearch, or differences in location, as has been the case with many teaching partnerships.
So, given both our physical proximity and our obvious similarities, including being large Russell Group universities in the Midlands and having similar teaching and research portfolios, it was a bold step for the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham to embark on broad-based strategic partnership a year ago.
Despite these similarities and the obvious challenges of working in such close collaboration, we were convinced that there were opportunities for mutual benefits and a much greater impact.
From the outset, we agreed to work together in a number of key areas including research initiatives, developing the student experience and business engagement activities. Internationalisation was another obvious area for collaboration and it was soon apparent that Brazil, a country in which both institutions have historically had a low profile, was a place of significant shared interest and offered a great opportunity to test our partnership.
Both universities saw opportunities for developing research connections in Brazil. The quality and ambition of Brazilian universities is considerable; research and education are valued both politically and socially in the country and the economy is strong and growing, fuelled in part by its rich natural resources. In addition, we believe our effort aligns well with the UK government and companies looking to foster closer relations with Brazil.
The ability to operate at scale has allowed us to develop 20 full-fee PhD scholarships annually for Brazilian students; a visiting fellows programme and a £480k joint research investment fund with the São Paulo Research Foundation. We have also planned a series of joint workshops in-country focused around energy (oil and gas, bioenergy), with further themes under discussion.
Alongside the benefits of scale are the traditional benefits of complementarity. Our collaboration enables each partner to bring its individual strengths to the table. We have found this could be research expertise or in areas such as student exchange and teaching links. An example of this is in the area of ultra-cold atoms and energy – Birmingham has expertise in optical lattices and nuclear energy and Nottingham in atom chips and bioenergy; both areas being of particular relevance in our links with Brazil.
And we share costs, most visibly, those of operating an office in Joinville (State of Santa Catarina) to support in-country activity. This lets us to be more efficient and share information we already have – something which is of particular significance in Brazil where understanding how 'the system' works is key to longer term success.
Beyond our international collaborations, there is further potential to collaborate on equipment and staff. The partnership allows the universities to share best practice and diversify income while strengthening research and teaching, and improving management and administration.
Our arrangement does not prevent us from collaborating with other partners. What is distinct about this model is the collaborative areas and the opportunities for staff to work together.
But the partnership is not easy. The first stage is ensuring it is based on shared values, goals, and expectations. In particular, convincing our colleagues that competition and collaboration can co-exist within such a partnership is a particular challenge. But, without firm foundations, there is a likelihood the partnership will fail due to divergent agendas. It is crucial to take time and effort at the beginning to get to know each other, agreeing what you are going to do together, and separately. For instance, we probably won't collaborate on student recruitment in Brazil or elsewhere as we would be trying to attract the same type of student.
Although it is still early, there is a real sense of purpose around what we are doing in Brazil. We hope what will follow will be additional academic collaborations, increased research income, and greater visibility. Overall, we need to be prepared to invest considerable time and energy working together and acknowledge that the effort may take a while to bear fruit.
Professor Malcolm Press is pro-vice-chancellor of international engagement in the Americas at the University of Birmingham, and Professor Christine Ennew is pro-vice-chancellor of internationalisation and science at the University of Nottingham.
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