In business, companies strive to increase market share; in higher education, institutions compete for prestige. This is why, despite whatever your told by people in universities, rankings are catnip to university administrations: by codifying prestige, they give institutions actual benchmarks against which they can measure themselves.
But prestige is actually much harder to amass than market share. Markets can increase in size; prestige is a zero-sum affair (my prestige is related directly to your lack thereof). And universities have fewer tools than businesses to extend their reach. Mergers are not unheard of – indeed, the pressure of global rankings has been a factor behind a wave of institutional mergers in France, Russia, and Scandinavia – but these tend to be initiated by governments rather than institutions. Hostile take-overs are even less common (though UBC’s acquisition of a campus in the Okanagan shows it’s not impossible).
So, what’s a university to do? Increasingly, the answer seems to be: “make strategic alliances”.
These tend to come in two forms: multi-institutional alliances (like Universitas 21, the Coimbra Group, and the like), and bilateral institutional deals. Occasionally, the latter exercise can go as far as ambitious, near-institutional mergers (see the Monash-Warwick alliance, for instance), but it usually consists of much simpler initiatives – MOUs between two institutions, designed to promote co-operation in fairly general terms. There’s a whole industry around this now – both QS and Thompson Reuters offer services to help institutions identify the most promising research partners. And signing these MOUs seem to take up an increasing amount of time, effort, and air miles among senior managers.
So it’s fair to ask: do these MOUs make any difference at all to research output? I have no hard evidence on this, but I suspect that returns are actually pretty meagre. While inter-institutional co-operation is increasing all the time, for the most part these links are organic; that is, they arise spontaneously from the interaction of individual researchers coming up with cool ideas for collaboration, rather than from more top-down interactions. While there’s a lot that governments and institutions can do to promote inter-institutional linkages in general, there’s a very limited amount that central administrations can do to promote specific linkages, that doesn’t quickly become counterproductive.
Having significant international research links is indeed the sign of a good university – the problem is that for managers under pressure to demonstrate results, organic growth isn’t fast enough. The appeal of all these MOUs is that they give the appearance of rapid progress on internationalization. But given the time and money expended on these things, some rigour is called for. This is an area where Board members can, and should, hold their administrations to account, and ask for some reasonable cost-benefit analysis.