The role of faculty in strategic partnerships

The role of faculty in strategic partnerships

There are legitimate reasons for higher education institutions to engage in international academic partnerships. The financial reason; the ‘everyone else is doing it so let’s tell the world we are global too’ one; the strategic ‘putting a flag down somewhere’ one; and the opportunities for students. Yet, beyond the financial agreement, curriculum, and international visibility, what is often missing from an enduring partnership engagement is the importance of the role of faculty. Faculty are the face of the partnership, the glue. If we fail, partnerships may quickly unravel.

Challenging conditions

Although no one will feel the least pang of sympathy for those of us who journey from New England in the Northeastern United States to teach in Melbourne, Australia once a year, this is not an easy teaching assignment.

Our time in Australia is short, a little over seven weeks. The in-classroom schedule is intense. A usual week requires teaching as much as four to seven hours a day not including preparation or grading. A typical classroom of 16 to 20 students often includes at least 11 different nationalities, multiple religious views and a polyglot of accented English pronunciations. There are few Australians in these classes.

Student motivation for studying away from their home countries may be more from parental pressure than self-actualisation, making their interest in attending class very limited. To defray expenses, many have to work as low-level clerks in grocery stores, late night fast food employees or gas station attendants – leaving them vulnerable to exploitation or exhausted from overnight shifts. There is no time or much desire for reading, especially when they have to read in English – their second or third language.

There are subtle and not so subtle classroom rivalries reflecting national political differences. Gender bias and prejudice abound. Religious holidays and requirements such as Ramadan and Diwali create scheduling conflicts. Students, accustomed to traditional ‘stand and deliver’ teaching, where deference to the expert and elder is the norm, have difficulty with American student-centred, interactive teaching where challenge and participation are expected. This is especially true of Asian students.

The backstory

A little background: Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia and Northeastern University in Boston, USA have, since 2007, partnered to offer the Global Leadership Program (GLP) where students receive separate master’s degrees from each of our two institutions in just two years. Swinburne faculty teach the Swinburne business-related degree requirements (international business, accounting, finance or marketing) during their fall and spring semesters. Northeastern faculty teach the Masters in Leadership Studies in the winter term and overlap with Swinburne for the Ssring term. Classes are held on the Swinburne campus. Northeastern faculty spend over a month as Visiting Fellows in Melbourne.

How faculty became central to this partnership

Faculty as an integral part of this partnership was not, nor is it now, a specific strategy. In the first few years, neither faculty nor administrators even understood the importance of the role of faculty. Then almost all the original administrators from both institutions moved on. Institutional priorities changed.

Yet, the partnership continued because a core group of faculty became its memory-keepers and fervent champions. Why?

Firstly, teaching in this environment is an incredible opportunity to be globalisation, not just talk about it. The partnership allows us to fully internationalise course readings and assignments. More importantly, it is an exquisite staging area for faculty to teach about the impact of globalisation while being themselves vulnerable to that very impact.

Secondly, the intensity of the teaching schedule brings faculty and students together to know each other both formally and in informal settings. Being some 15 000 miles away from home with no other obligation to ourselves other than teaching gives us time to sit with students for meals, learn about holidays and customs, hear how our home countries are perceived, and to truly gain a world view. This is rarely possible at the home institution.

Aren’t these two reasons personal, rather than institutional? They are not. To lose sight of the institutional is to lose sight of what is beyond the rationale for the international partnerships: the financial, reputational, and strategic.

When Indian and Pakistani students engage in a project together, when the Iranian and Libyan students break bread at the US faculty’s table, when the young woman from Vietnam debates enthusiastically and fearlessly with an Australian young man, faculty understand and report back to the institution that this classroom is how we, the faculty, further the goals of not just the partnership but of all higher education by simulating and stimulating world peace.

Leslie P. Hitch is Associate Teaching Professor at Northeastern University in Boston, USA.

This blog post is part of the Summer Forum series. The theme of the current issue of Forum magazine is ‘strategic partnerships’. EAIE members can expect to receive their hard copy of the magazine soon, but can already browse articles in the Member Centre.

To read Forum in full and stay up to date on hot topics in the field of international higher education, among many other perks, you can become an EAIE member.