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SIEF Webinar No. 4: Universities as partnership models for driving positive change

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

12th February 2021

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A finale to the energetic and insightful first series of webinars to celebrate the ideas of Professor Allan Gibb hosted by the Societal Innovation and Enterprise Forum (SIEF), attention turned to the topic of stakeholder engagement and trust-based partnership working as a means of developing universities as entrepreneurial learning organisations. A key contribution of Professor Allan Gibb, the Stakeholder Assessment Model (SAM) he developed proposes that an organisation is both defined and determined by the needs of its stakeholders, and how it responds to contingent demands and requirements. The model relies on trust-based relationships which focus on being responsive to stakeholder needs, helping them to achieve their goals.

Moderated by Professor Andrew Atherton, Global Director of Transnational Education (TNE), Navitas, the international panel included:

Opening remarks were delivered by Dr Raffaele Trapasso, Team Leader at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Cities and Regions, celebrating Professor Allan Gibb’s legacy and the ability of entrepreneurship to transform ideas into sustainable innovation for a better world.

Partnerships for long-term viability

In response to the starter question which challenged whether universities can indeed deliver a ‘genuine’ partnership model, Dr Dana Brown declared it was achievable, and strongly petitioned for its pursuit. “Neither tangential nor additional to the university’s core mission, it aligns with teaching, talent cultivation, and research, as well as providing access to much needed revenue and resources needed”. She detailed that partnerships enhance the teaching mission through experiential learning; a core element of curricular innovation that prepares an entrepreneurial mindset for real-life work and problem-solving and new technologies. By way of example, Dana highlighted the partnership between Carleton University and Shopify, which exposes learners to actual workplace challenges whilst providing access for low-resourced stakeholders to access help for tackling issues. A win-win for all parties including higher impact research for the communities with which they engage.

However, there was clear recognition it is not easy to integrate partners into the traditional model of university, that indeed a significant investment of resource, commitment, and cultural change is required. “It is work that demands to be facilitated by translators who can speak the different languages of industry, government, and academia”. Noting university financing as a key challenge, predicted to further intensify as governments shift their resources post-pandemic, there is an urgency for alternative revenue and resource streams in universities. Highlighting sizeable dips in international student applications and the rise of transit hubs where students elect to attend a local location to study remotely with an international University, Dana suggested university partnering in the success of their cities and communities was essential. Such networks and hubs, reflect the ideas of Allan and should be neutral places to bring parties together to problem-solve. For universities, deep local partnerships with local government and businesses can champion the places they are located in and attract and help nurture talent.

Being genuine, as the litmus test for partnership

Professor Paul Gough drew attention to universities’ primary stakeholders and partners - the students and its alumni. Sharing his experiences in Australia with practice-based partner studios, he illustrated a national strategy toward work-integrated learning. This he explained is “an entrepreneurial approach which embeds students into all types of organisation, be that industry, the community or voluntary groups, through projects set between academics and business - architecture, communication, design, professional communication, fashion, just a few examples. This model has been a springboard to a range of spin-outs developed at university.

In alignment with Dana, Paul agreed on challenges for genuine partnership. “A knowledge exchange space of partnering is a pure space and not that easy to contrive”, he said. The way forward requires alignment of purpose. A new structural construct that mandates a different way of thinking about how professional services feed into appropriate, proper, and deep partnerships is needed. A type of dialogical model of co-design of genuine exchange. Unfortunately, some may interpret partnering as a sign of weakness, a deficit model, or a relinquishing of authority. The nexus of power between universities and communities is an interesting space that warrants further discussion.

Transaction heavy relationships

Positioned within the state of Wisconsin in the USA as a land-grant university which views their boundaries as those of the state as a whole, and a mission to serve its public and private sectors, Dr Paul Robbins declared that genuine partnership relationships can indeed be forged. Yet the requisite institutional transformation requires the dethroning of its supply-side vision of generating knowledge. Paul provided the example of his environmental scholars initially failing to garner the attention of legislators on data linking carbon dioxide emissions with global warming. These issues were of little re-election value at the time. The scholars adapted their approach and with much investment of time and commitment, immersed themselves in specific industry sectors, asking them what they needed or were worried about. Reconfiguring the data, so it directly impacted upon the needs of business, they were finally successful in attracting their attention. “This involved a lot of insight sharing and relationship building”. “You then”, said Paul, “also need a model to bring the student talent in, or risk just being professors talking to business”.

Emma Cats, whilst excited about the promises of a partnership model between students and universities, declared the reality for students can be more disappointing, recounting her own experience which did not live up to expectation, particularly with regard to real-world affairs and engagement. Having run into many issues, she had first-hand experience of a disconnect between the promises and realities of student engagement and genuine feedback processes. For her university was more of a “factory producing a mould of graduate in the most cost-effective way”, and was more concerned and focused on the global ranking of the university.

Dr Pegram Harrison, reflecting on Allan’s stakeholder diagrams, noted the importance of maintaining focus whilst accepting the complexity. “We are dealing with super-complex problems where we have limited power to influence. Partnering helps spread the challenge, and improves the likelihood of success for universities”. Allan's Stakeholder Assessment Model, he said, clearly emphasises the importance of strong relations lubricated by trust and this requires a shift in mindset. People must be able to fruitfully engage in a joint goal, understanding each other, and able to cope with their differences. He detailed the University of Oxford’s collaboration with AstraZeneca as a good example of a successful university-business partnership programme, with its entrepreneurial mindset and capability in navigating the complexity experienced in the Covid crisis.

Keith Herrmann also championed partnership working between universities and a variety of stakeholders. He gave the example of the student industrial placement programme which he led at the University of Surrey where the university itself had a long heritage in providing students with the opportunity to work in industry as part of their learning journey. The success of which is rooted in partnership working and dependent upon trust-based relationships, strong co-ordination and student engagement. Keith explained that it is hard-wired into an academic’s role to go out and build trusting relationships with industry. It is notable, however, that the large number of students and industrial partners involved in the placement journey draws heavily on the commitment and co-ordination efforts of staff. Students also take responsibility; they are not handed a placement but work closely with academic faculty, and with support from the Employability and Careers Centre to seek out placement opportunities, they learn the job-seeking skills required to succeed. He described the university as the ‘grand ivory tower’ no more but rather as an interactive, engaged, and porous institution working with industry.

Effective prerequisites for partnership working

Andrew Atherton questioned the panel on the prerequisites for an effective partnership model.

  • Keith expressed the importance of internal systems that encourage academics to enthusiastically engage, co-ordinate and collaborate in a partnership model. In reality, many different types of interactions and relationships can spring up over time between any one employer and the university, making it difficult to navigate through. A form of relationship management process is crucial to help with strategic engagement.

  • For Dana, it is investment and commitment to discover the synergies and the opportunities. She also highlighted the underutilised potential of SMEs to engage student talent. Creating a student-led consulting organisation with the mentorship and engagement of the professors in her business school has been successful. During the pandemic, the students have been the key resource that has brought fresh insight that has helped SMEs pivot and re-strategise.

  • Pegram called for universities to offer a broad portfolio of entrepreneurship experience, in both SMEs and larger entities; that there be a balance of educating students for entrepreneurship and about entrepreneurship, irrespective of their career choice.

Concerns against corporatising engagement

In response to a question on whether universities risk being corporatised through their engagement and partnerships with businesses, Paul Robbins was clear, “no, you don't have to corporatise to be corporate”. We don’t want faculty to redesign their entire way of thinking or doing, he said, but ensure their research and purpose address external stakeholder needs. “Our faculty are curious people, they want to do research, and our students are interested in learning practical things so that they can get employed”. The City Year programme, he explained, brings faculty, students, and community members together to address some of the greatest challenges facing Wisconsin’s local government. The partnership relies on the community to determine which challenges should be addressed and what projects would be most impactful, and the teaching is then delivered to respond to their needs. “I prefer to see it as a transaction rather than corporate”, he concluded. The research is informed by local needs, and in turn, we create some revenue stream from work done by very energetic students, who take away key learning experiences.

Lived learning environments

Paul Gough, raised a concern that being genuine as a value proposition in the partnership working process can be difficult to scale up within institutions. Partnerships, he claimed, need to be genuine for staff and students. They both need to see and experience that staff are not being forced to this as a bolt-on to their normal duties. Unfortunately, many universities fail to recognise or reward the entrepreneurial behaviours or endeavours of staff. In agreement, Keith elaborated on Paul’s reference to externally imposed university metrics like REF, TEF and KEF. He indicated that they don’t fully represent the task environment of the higher education sector as a whole, but they do often distort the behaviour of universities and their staff. “Taking the opportunity for curation, co-creating, co-producing, and co-publishing should be an active part of the institutional culture, not a tick-box exercise” he stated. Partnership working needs to be a much more visible aspect of the institutional culture, for our students as well as our wider communities. Keith was strong in his views about the design of the student learning journey, suggesting that for the first year of study students should be out of the classroom and in the community, in society, dealing with issues of the economy and the environment. Right from the start, this places them in the context of the lived learning environment that they should be in. Paul Gough followed on with this reference to the Sustainable Development Goals by suggesting it could offer a way of repositioning curricula to this end. He said, “I'd like to see more and not less of the kind of collaborative studentships that were once part and parcel of the research councils in the UK at least, or the knowledge transfer partnerships, which have a kind of dialogical relationship between industry and universities”.

Final comments on trust and values

  • Paul Gough: Trust-driven relationships that build understanding and insight are key to success and take time. It requires a form of ethical leadership that involves developing a strategy around values, going out and asking stakeholders what they think. “It’s the nature of the promise, what are we saying we are going to give people, and then managing expectations. Some of the measurement systems in place deny or frustrate the type of work we aspire to”.

  • Dana Brown: Trust can’t be built overnight, it takes time and effort, and to answer to Emma’s concerns regarding genuine engagement with students, a more focused demonstration is needed of how students are genuinely co-creators of their experience in partnership with their university.

  • Paul Robbins: To continually work on sustaining the relationship between all parties, the communities, and the students. It’s not just from project start to end, but the habit to be constantly responsive to all stakeholders.

  • Keith Herrmann: Recommended building trust through storytelling as a key way to share activity which often gets lost. Capturing and telling the story about partnership working in ways that keeps it alive beyond the university’s annual report. “It needs to be a live living cultural phenomenon within the institution, that is driven by active storytelling”.

  • Pegram Harrison: Suggested that we learn from successful models like the AstraZeneca Oxford partnership working on the Covid-19 vaccine. It was a partnership brokered over time through building a trust-based relationship. This way of working also relied on an entrepreneurial culture which also extended beyond the business school.

  • Emma Cats: If universities are to be genuinely committed to trust-based relationships, they need to offer concrete evidence of the value gained from genuine student engagement, be that through genuine feedback processes and co-production.

Andrew thanked all the panellists and the participants for their active contribution in the breakout rooms. He closed by thanking the SIEF Forum Organising Team for all their hard work: Dinah Bennett, Susan Frenk, Ted Fuller, Yolanda Gibb, Gay Haskins, Keith Herrmann, Colin Jones, Andy Penaluna, Kathryn Penaluna, Jane Rindl, Slavica Singer, Mike Thomas, and Marju Unt.


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