Political and financial pressures encourage universities to collaborate but, at the same time, an unforgiving marketplace increasingly drives them to compete. How can universities collaborate to compete? This theme explores how institutions can determine those aspects of their internal infrastructures that give them a competitive advantage and, conversely, where it might be beneficial to form strategic partnerships with other institutions or with external partners.

Top tips for senior managers

  • Ask yourself: “Could I be doing this better? If I could, how and who with?”
  • Competition isn’t always the best motivator to encourage collaboration – answering the question “what’s in it for me?” works much better with potential partners.
  • One of the biggest obstacles to collaboration is subject area language – learn the other institutions’ and disciplines’ languages so you can understand each other better,
  • Run a pilot project first to build up trust
  • Set up reasonable expectations for the collaboration
  • Be flexible – if things go wrong, you’ll need to be able to adapt
  • Industry and business work at different speeds – make sure your timescales are compatible

More on this topic from the Future of Research conference

Collaboration in a competitive environment was discussed depth at the Future of Research conference. A presentation  by Professor Paul Curran, Vice Chancellor of City University London was followed by three sessions covering different aspects of the topic. Find summary of each of these below, and click on the session name to read more about who was on the panel, a more detailed record of the discussion, and supporting resources from JISC for each session.

Professor Paul Curran’s presentation
Although universities have become more competitive, academics have become more cooperative. The more competitive universities will collaborate more because they know they will get a wider audience and a stronger profile. But as fees and teaching competition increase, universities will need to collaborate more, particularly in networks with other universities, nationally and internationally.

Research beyond institutional boundaries
Collaboration enables HE institutions to extend their skills in some areas beyond what they’d be capable of by themselves; it also allows them to pass on management of some services to other organisations with skills in those areas in order to concentrate on their own specialties in research and teaching. However, collaboration requires careful management and there are barriers that need to be overcome by all partners in a collaboration if it is to bring more benefits than problems.

The ‘open road to competitiveness’
This session considered the paradox of collaboration and competition, and how we need to think about different business models for research. It took as its example open source software, and in particular a case study of TexGen software at the University of Nottingham. The speakers concluded that the competitive edge is not in selling data, but in selling expertise. The value of software, for example, is not in the software itself, but in applying that software or developing associated consultancy skills. Open source software can encourage collaboration, and the sharing of ideas, tools, resources, and code. Such collaboration can give institutions new opportunities with business, and the ability to benefit from an increased number of funding sources.

Collaboration: growing benefit or necessary evil?
Collaboration has been a factor of research for many years and it is clear that it is only growing and becoming more important. It is beneficial – evidence shows that internationally co-authored papers receive more citation – but it also comes with constraints and costs. The UK needs to prioritise collaboration and novel approaches to it are increasing but it is not straightforward and the costs need to be evaluated to ensure real return on investment.

Further resources from JISC