A Better Model to Support University Collaborations

I’ve helped a number of university-to-university collaborations get established and then operate.

And that got me thinking about models of support that could do both – (1) support the initiative, and; (2) freely give out the advice to use their model without that advice having bias as well. Or the perception of bias.

To this point, the models I have seen could be categorised into two areas:

  1. Third party support – Like me or some other non-university entity supporting university collaboration. This works relatively well. But there are problems. For example, as a small independent contractor I can be seen as a risk. It is easier for me to fail and thus the initiative might go under too. If you use a larger independent contractor, like a small, medium or even big consulting house, you can mitigate against that risk. But the price, quite literally, is increased financial cost to the initiative. I have also seen special interest groups come in and operate or manage an initiative. And of course, they have their own biases towards their special interest or their members. So, third parties are not always independent and not always useful.
  2. University support – This is where the universities themselves hire a person to do the collaborative support work. Often, they are called a project officer. Often, they are based at the lead university. The one who is handling the money, and contracts. The problem with this model is the perception of bias. That the project officer is being persuaded to make, recommend or take certain decisions. This model also tends to mean the bigger universities are often required to manage contracts, finances, and project officers. Perhaps entrenching bias or feels of bias.

But here’s what I think – universities should support each other through a pool of collaboration managers or project officers. 

Here’s how it would work. 

Each university in the scheme would allocate one full-time equivalent staff member to supporting collaborations. And ideally it would be one person, maybe two. 

So, in Victoria (Australia, where I live) if each university were on-board, they’d commit 1 FTE to the project. That’d make 8 FTE. These FTE are just numbers and names on paper. There are no additional funds to be allocated. There’s no additional workspace to be found. People performing these roles usually are already working on university projects. But now, I’m saying they are notionally put into a pool

Each person in the pool knows they are part of the pool. And they know everyone else in the pool. The pool meets regularly somewhere between 2 and 6 times per year for between 1 hour and a day – depending on the project load and topics for discussion. If there are zero multi-university collaborative projects, the pool might meet twice a year for an hour each time to discuss how they manage internal work. If there are 8 projects (i.e., One per person), then they might meet bi-monthly for an hour to share information, and then once a year for a half-day to discuss best practice and opportunities for inter-initiative collaboration. 

Now, let’s say there’s a new collaborative project proposed between three universities. If the three universities agree it is worth pursuing, then the project automatically gets support from the pool of collaboration managers. BUT the FTE must come from the other five universities. That is, the individual(s) involved in collaboration management cannot be from the participating universities. 

That way, there’s no additional cost to the participants. The knowledge about collaborations and their management is built and retained by the universities. Staff learn from projects and how other universities operate, thus being able to report on how their own university could improve. 

If there is a project that involves all universities, then support might be rotated and kept separate from the university managing the contracts and finance. Or the various projects to be managed (e.g., website, events, meetings, and supporting special interest groups) could be managed by different people. 

Anyway, just a thought on how things could operate. 

What do you think? Is it useful? Or rubbish?

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He excels in supporting university to university collaborations. He is driven by the challenge of bringing together academics to consensus; helping researchers be collaboratively smart. Richard’s strategic approach to collaboration and cooperation has been making the impossible possible for more than a decade years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

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