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Internationalization in Action

December 30, 1899


As part of the efforts of the American Council on Education's (ACE) Center for Inter​​nationalization and Global Engagement (CIGE) to provide guidance to institutions engaged in internationalization, Internationalization in Action features institutional strategies and good practices gathered from participants in CIGE programs and other experts in the field. Topics rotate regularly, and each installment includes examples, sample documents, and advice from a variety of institutions. We welcome your contributions!


Do you want to download and print this report? Click below for the PDF.
International Partnerships: A Four-Part Series


International Partnerships: A Four-Part Series

Part One: Definitions and Dimensions

By Jane Gatewood, Vice Provost for Global Engagement, University of Rochester (NY), and Susan Buck Sutton, Emerita Associate Vice President for International Affairs, Indiana University

With contributions by: Lucia Brajkovic, Senior Research Specialist, ACE, and Jermain Griffin, Research Associate, ACE
Edited by: Robin Matross Helms, Director for Internationalization and Global Engagement, ACE​

International higher education partnerships are increasing in number, and expanding in the goals they address and forms they take. Numerous studies, both in the United States and globally, indicate that colleges and universities increasingly understand international partnership development as a key element of their internationalization programs—sometimes as a tactical move to further other objectives, sometimes as a goal in and of itself.

This installment of Internationalization in Action is the first in a four-part series that explores the nature and practice of international academic partnerships. Here, we set the stage for the series by examining the changing landscape of such relationships, and offering frameworks for thinking about the various goals, structures, and impacts they encompass.

With this broad overview in place, the subsequent installments in the series will delve into the campus context for international partnerships and how such relationships develop and play out. Installment #2 provides a step-by-step guide to strategic planning for partnership activity, and Installment #3 examines the institutional support structures needed to put the resulting plan into action. Finally, Installment #4 focuses on individual partner relationships with a discussion of the activities and practices entailed in launching a successful collaboration and sustaining it over time.


Greater numbers, greater complexity​

Thirty years ago, this installment of Internationalization in Action—and the whole series on international partnerships—would not have been necessary (or perhaps even possible).

At the time, the landscape of such relationships was relatively limited and fairly straightforward. International partnerships, at least for U.S. institutions, fell into two main categories: exchanges, and what were often then called collaborations for “technical assistance.” The former were more common—largely focused on student exchange, but also encompassing direct enrollment arrangements (e.g., one-way study abroad programs) as well as faculty exchange and research collaboration. The latter were often funded by governmental or international agencies and linked institutions for the purposes of academic capacity-building or development initiatives in the nation of one of the partners.

For most institutions, however, this distinction was a moot point.  As Charles Klasek pointed out in his 1992 article Inter-Institutional Cooperation Guidelines and Agreements​,” just 25 years ago, most U.S. colleges and universities had no partnerships of either sort, and even for those that did, the following could be said:

Only in the last few years have institutions begun to formalize the guidelines, processes, and contents of agreements. They were being signed haphazardly at all levels of administration, had little or no funding behind them, and rarely had presidential/chancellorship involvement.

Clearly, the environment is very different today. International partnerships often have the full backing of institutional leaders, benefit from substantial resource commitments, and take a wide variety of forms. The remainder of this installment explores the array of characteristics that define such relationships, and the dimensions by which they might be categorized. While recognizing that each individual partnership assembles its own constellation of characteristics along each dimension, these broad frameworks are intended to help institutional leaders and practitioners sort out the rapidly expanding world of partnership possibilities, and to inform decisions about how their institutions can and should engage with counterparts around the world.

Dimension #1: Goals
Dimension #2: Activities
Dimension #3: Levels of institutional engagement
Dimension #4: Partnering entities abroad
Dimension #5: Types of agreements
Dimension #6: Impact​


Up and Up: Partnership Activity by the Numbers


  • ACE’s Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses 2012 study found that 90 percent of U.S. doctoral and 50 percent of baccalaureate institutions greatly increased partnership activity in the last five years. Conducted every five years, the Mapping survey assesses the current state of internationalization at American colleges and universities, analyzes progress and trends over time, and identifies future priorities.
  • In the International Association of Universities’ 4th Global Survey, conducted in 2013, 75 percent of respondent institutions reported increased funding for exchange and research collaboration over the prior three years. The survey report is based on responses from 1,336 higher education institutions located in 131 countries worldwide.
  • The European Association for International Education’s EAIE Barometer study found that 79 percent of participating institutions see partnerships as a central feature of internationalization. Published in 2015, the EAIE Barometer report examines the state of internationalization in the European Higher Education Area from the perspective of practitioners.​


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Dimension #1: Goals

In contrast to the limited scope and purposes of partnerships in the early days, institutions’ goals for international collab​oration now span the full breadth of the academic enterprise—teaching, research, service, and institutional development. Broad categories of partnership goals, and some of the specific objectives within each of these areas, include:

Academics and Reputation
  • Enhance teaching and student learning. Higher education institutions worldwide recognize that learning in a globalized world must include international engagement for students, both for workforce development as well as for global dialogue and cultural understanding. To this end, institutions may develop cross-border partnerships for collaborative exchange, instruction, or degree-granting programs, all of which provide broadened opportunities for global learning for students.

  • Build institutional reputation and prestige. Many institutions around the world seek to achieve so-called world class status, which is typically defined by a favorable position in global rankings tables. Developing partnerships with elite or highly ranked institutions in other countries can be seen as a way to increase institutional prestige and reputation—a key metric in various ranking schemes.
Research and Funding
  • Contribute to large-scale research. Research is increasingly structured around large, interdisciplinary, international clusters of researchers and institutions, due in large part to the fact that current global research challenges—clean energy, health and wellness, educational access and equity, sustainable development, etc.—cannot be addressed by one institution’s researchers operating alone. These challenges are too pressing and too expansive for a singular approach and require multiple institutions and facilities. Partnering further allows institutions to increase their capacity for research without significant investment in additional core facilities.

  • Respond to global shifts in funding sources. While the United States still provides the largest total investment in research and development (R&D) worldwide, its share of global investment in R&D has slipped. Now, the majority share of global expenditures in research and development, historically held by North America, has shifted to Asia. To remain competitive in this shifting landscape, U.S. institutions seek collaborators abroad—often with the further encouragement of national funding agencies and foundations—which increasingly make international collaboration a condition of funding.
Institutional Development and Service
  • Help meet increased demand for high-quality higher education worldwide. As global demand for higher education increases, institutions may seek partnerships as a means to tap into new markets and expand their student base—in many cases with the support of national governments that are looking to provide broader access to higher education in their countries. Such linkages are also sometimes the basis for enhancing curricular, research, and administrative capacities at one or both of the partner institutions.

  • Provide opportunities for internships, experiential learning, and community engagement. There is growing interest in creating ways for students to apply their global learning, build their capacity for intercultural work, and develop a sense of global responsibility and citizenship. Partnerships can provide a trusted, locally embedded pathway into experiential learning abroad, as well as the opportunity for direct student-to-student collaboration across national boundaries.

  • Engage in people-to-people diplomacy. A number of nations, including the United States, advocate for (and support) international academic partnerships as a means of increasing awareness and understanding among nations, in ways that advance international diplomacy, cooperation, and peace-building. Institutions may see such contributions to the global common good as an aspect of their service mission.

The above list of goals is representative, but not exhaustive. As the overall mission and scope of higher education continues to expand—and public expectations surrounding its role in and contributions to society evolve—colleges and universities are leveraging international collaborations to accomplish new and emerging goals, and advance institutional strategy in previously unexpected ways.

While many partner relationships will have multiple objectives, few will address the whole breadth of possibilities; an institution’s suite of partnerships, however, may touch on many or all of these areas, and the institution-specific goals set within them. Installment #2 in this series will address goal-setting and alignment with institutional strategy in more detail.​


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Dimension #2: Activities


​As the goals for international partnerships have expanded and evolved over time, so too have the collaborative activities entailed in such arrangements. Like the goals themselves, such activities now span the full breadth of the academic enterprise. They include:


Student and faculty mobility (reciprocal and unidirectional).

Student and faculty mobility between partners can take many forms by which students take courses or participate in experiential programs (sometimes for credit, sometimes not) and faculty teach or conduct research at partner institutions. Often, these arrangements are developed on the principle of reciprocity wherein like is exchanged for like, although such arrangements can also be unilateral or multilateral.

Cooperative development and institutional capacity-building projects

Institutions seeking to develop or expand their academic and research capacity often pursue training and research opportunities with experienced partners abroad. They also invite partner staff and faculty to assist in planning new degrees and developing various procedures, policies, resources, and infrastructure needed for institutional advancement. For the partner, access to specific environments, constituencies, or locales often makes the collaboration mutually beneficial.

Collaborative research and training

Specialized research or centers of excellence often cannot be scaled or replicated, and core facilities are expensive to develop and maintain. To expand research capacity and provide training to graduate students and early-career researchers, institutions may partner to create formal collaboration and training opportunities that investigate issues of global significance.


The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is a Geneva-based research organization focused on the study of physics. Founded in 1954, the organization has 22 member states, all of which except Israel are located in Europe. Additionally, nearly 70 countries are affiliated with CERN, including the Unites States, as an observer state, and Mexico, as a nonmember state with a cooperation agreement. Higher education institutions in member and affiliate countries can formally partner with CERN by signing a memorandum of understanding to promote particular types of engagement. Currently, 101 U.S. institutions have such agreements in place. Princeton University (NJ) and Baylor University (TX), for example, partner with CERN around work involving CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.


Cooperative and collaborative degrees

Institutions worldwide have increasingly collaborated through formalized mechanisms between institutions that allow for one or more of the following: joint conferral, double/dual (two of the same type/level of degrees), or consecutive (bachelor’s/master’s, master’s/doctoral, etc.) degrees. Such degrees are often accomplished through students progressing from one institution to the other in a compressed timeframe and are seen to be useful for cross-border degree recognition in an increasingly global workforce. 


ACE’s Mapping International Joint and Dual Degrees: U.S.Program Profiles and Perspectives​ reports the results of a 2013 survey on international joint and dual degree programs at U.S. colleges and universities. The survey findings, along with qualitative data gathered through interviews with select respondents, provide information about institution and program characteristics and policies, academic focus areas, partner locations, and programmatic challenges, as well as how joint and dual degree programs factor into broader institutional strategy and planning.


Collaborative teaching (face-to-face or online)

Global learning is predicated on enabling students to venture outside their own cultural setting and also to engage multiple perspectives on a particular topic. Having partner faculty co-teach a course (or segment of a course) provides a particularly powerful way of doing this, especially if students are also encouraged to work on projects with their counterparts at the other institution.


For the last five years, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), Bryn Mawr College (PA), Tienjin University (China), and Nankai University (China) have offered a Collaborative International Summer School in China in which students represent all the participating institutions, courses are co-taught by faculty from two of them, and each summer is devoted to international dialogue on a particular topic.


Collaborative academic operations

Partnerships also sometimes involve one of the partners developing an academic unit at the other, or the creation of a jointly established unit that brings together faculty and curricula (and sometimes students) from both institutions. In a variation on this theme, in some cases, when institutions establish a branch campus in another country, they may share space or facilities with a host country institution while maintaining a separate identity and separate programs.


The UM-SJTU Joint Institute (JI) founded in 2006, represents a strategic partnership between the University of Michigan (UM) and China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU). The JI aims to utilize the best practices of both universities in order to establish a highly reputable institute for innovative global engineering education and research activities, which will eventually extend to various other academic disciplines.

Current offerings include undergraduate and graduate degree programs in mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering at the JI, and a dual degree program through which students study for two years in Shanghai then apply to transfer to the College of Engineering or the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at UM. In June 2012, UM and SJTU signed a 10-year agreement to continue and expand their strategic alliance, laying the foundation for additional collaborative activities.


Projects involving organizations, businesses, and communities near one or more partners

Academic partnerships can also be embedded within or even form the basis for connections among various entities in the communities where the institutions are located. In some cases, these projects have a social or economic development component, along the lines of the “technical assistance” projects of the pre-1990s era. Sister city relationships, multi-national businesses, diasporic immigrant communities, and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often frame such work.


Portland State University’s (PSU) partnerships with several institutions in Vietnam reflect strong relationships between that nation and the state of Oregon. This has led to a variety of initiatives, including the Intel Vietnam Scholars Initiative, a 3+2 engineering program that involves Oregon’s largest private employer, Intel, as well as significant PSU engagement with eco-city initiatives in Danang City.


While many international partnerships focus on a particular discrete activity, as institutions have sought to deepen their relationships with counterparts abroad and maximize the impact of collaborations (see Dimension #6 for further discussion of impact), more are pursuing multidimensional partnerships that include a variety of initiatives and projects. In some cases, such multidimensionality is built into the relationship from the beginning; in others, the relationship expands over time to include new activities and focus areas.

Just as individual partner relationships often evolve to include new activities, the range of possible collaborative activities is also expanding, and undoubtedly will continue to do so as institutions think creatively about how to leverage international linkages to respond to the needs of students, faculty, and the institution as a whole. In particular, the final category noted above—activities that reach beyond college and university campuses—is likely to see substantial growth in terms of number and variety of activities in the coming years as more institutions pursue relationships with non-academic partners (see Dimension #4).


Evolving Multidimensionality:
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and Moi University

Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) began its relationship with Kenya’s Moi University in 1989. With support from and involvement by a variety of universities and government agencies in the United States and Kenya, the two institutions’ medical schools established the Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH) project, which focuses on combating HIV/AIDS—one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Over the subsequent 25 years, AMPATH has flourished, growing into a network of health-care facilities that oversees the health needs of over 2 million people in western Kenya.

Once the AMPATH project was up and running, IUPUI and Moi sought opportunities to build on its success and expand their partnership. First, they continued to focus on the HIV/AIDS arena, and in particular, addressing the social stigma faced by AMPATH patients. For example, IUPUI worked with Moi to establish a social work program at the institution, and to build an academic network of social scientists throughout Kenya to collaborate on research. IUPUI and Moi faculty in an array of fields were tapped to provide expertise and education for patients who had lost their previous livelihoods due to social stigmatization—examples included business faculty to advise on micro-financing opportunities, and art faculty to teach craft-making.

While both institutions remained committed to their HIV/AIDS work, they soon recognized the potential for collaborations in other academic areas as well, particularly those that were strong at one institution but not the other. Moi, for instance, has a world-class program in tourism management—a growth area on the IUPUI campus. Conversely, although Kenya produces some of the world’s top athletes, Moi did not have a physical education program, while IUPUI has a robust one. The two institutions have made a concerted effort in recent years to develop research collaborations in these areas, as well as exchange programs that allow students and faculty to take advantage of opportunities and expertise not available on their home campuses.

Excerpted from International Higher Education Partnerships: A Global Review of Standards and Practices (ACE 2015). ​


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Dimension #3: Levels of Institutional Engagement


On the home campus side, the partnering entity within the institution varies depending on the scope and activities entailed in the relationship. Partnering units, from smallest to largest, may include the following: 


Individual faculty may partner with peers abroad for joint teaching or research endeavors. Administration and implementation of the relationship rests with the individuals involved.

Academic department or school

For teaching or research collaborations that involve multiple faculty, a particular department or school may forge a partnership with a counterpart unit at another institution. A joint or dual degree program in a particular discipline may also involve a single academic unit. Responsibility for managing the relationship may be held by a designated faculty member or departmental administrator, who coordinates the involvement of other individuals within the unit. 


The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) Instituto de Geofísica are regularly engaged in collaborative research. Both research centers maintain large staffs of more than 60 personnel, which include faculty, staff researchers, and doctoral students. Recent collaborative projects have included research on the Chicxulub crater, located off the coast of Yucatan, Mexico, and a study focusing on climate change and the risk of leishmaniasis​, a vector-borne parasitic disease common in tropical regions that is now spreading throughout North America. As part of the latter study, which began in 2008, researchers examined the impact of climate change on the northern migration of insect and rodent carriers of the tropical disease.



For multidimensional partnerships that entail a variety of activities across disciplines and departments, the nexus of the partnership is typically the institution. Often such relationships are managed by the office of the senior international officer (SIO), who coordinates the involvement of individuals and units throughout campus. (See Installment #3 for further exploration of the SIO role).


Multi-campus systems (e.g., at the state level) may initiate partnerships that engage some or all of their member institutions, or units within the individual institutions. Coordination and execution of the partnership is often tiered, with a system office handling big-picture administrative aspects of the relationship, while campus faculty and staff are responsible for managing individual activities and implementation.

Over time, a partnership that originates at one level of the institution may expand to encompass others, particularly if new activities are pursued. If a faculty member involved in a one-to-one teaching collaboration, for example, sees the potential for a department-wide student exchange program, or a dual degree with the partner institution, the relationship would need be brought to the department or school level. At all stages and regardless of the actors involved, it is important that roles are clear so that all tasks associated with the relationship are handled, but duplication of efforts is minimized.​  


System and Campus Synergies: State University of New York’s Turkey Partnership

In 2001, the State University of New York (SUNY) entered into a system-level agreement with
the Turkish Higher Education Council (YÖK), the first effort by SUNY to facilitate a system-led, campus-based dual degree program. This agreement established a framework through which Turkish students can pursue a dual degree program by taking courses at their home institution in Turkey and one of the SUNY campuses. The overarching goal for the partnership was to leverage SUNY’s scale as a system to create a meaningful, multi-faceted, long-term partnership that could grow to include more campuses and additional activities. 

Initially, the primary roles of system staff were to overcome key challenges such as meshing the regulatory frameworks of SUNY and YÖK, matching individual SUNY institutions with Turkish partners, and securing funding to support the program in its early years (e.g., from the U.S. Department of State and the Turkish Fulbright Commission). Now, ongoing system-level activities include marketing the programs in Turkey, coordinating student application information from the Turkish central placement system, providing in-country student support services (such as visa and pre-departure informational sessions), and outreach to schools, businesses, and organizations. 

At the campus level, during the program’s initiation each institution designated program coordinators at the senior administrative and departmental levels to work through the academic and management issues entailed in the development of individual degree programs. On an ongoing basis, managing the student experience is a key institutional responsibility; for example, participating campuses have put in place strong advising practices to provide guidance and support to help students deal with the cross-cultural academic adjustments due to teaching approaches and academic policies that are very different in the two countries’ educational systems. Campus coordinators also meet yearly to work through issues together, and engage in collective strategic planning for the partnership as a whole.

Excerpted from “Leveraging System Assets to Strengthen Campus Internationalization: Strategic Planning and the Role of Leadership,” by Jason E. Lane, Katharine C. Krebs, and Lori Thompson. 

In International Joint and Dual Degrees: Strategy and Implementation (ACE 2014), part of the International Briefs for Higher Education Leaders series


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Dimension #4: Partnering Entities Abroad


As the array of activities institutions are pursuing through collaborations abroad has expanded, so too has the variety of potential partner entities. And as institutions have become more adept at establishing relationships with corporations and other organizations in their local communities, more are seeking to apply the lessons learned and models established in the international context. Categories of possible partners include:


Higher education institutions

The traditional international partners, colleges and universities abroad, are still the go-to collaborators for student and faculty mobility, shared teaching endeavors, joint and dual degrees, and many research collaborations. As internationalization has become an increasing priority for institutions around the world, the pool of available institutional partners—and resources devoted to pursuing such relationships—has expanded significantly, allowing institutions to better target potential partners that are a good fit given their own institutional priorities and characteristics.

Government agencies

Like individual institutions, governments around the world are prioritizing higher education internationalization, and many have developed policies and initiatives to promote partnerships among the institutions in their purview. Particularly in contexts where higher education is centralized, with significant government management, there may be opportunities for institutions or systems to form relationships with government agencies or entities; the State University of New York (SUNY)-Turkey partnership described above is a prime example. Government-sponsored research centers may also present opportunities for collaboration in the research realm.


In 2012, the University of Arizona’s Global Health Institute received a four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to partner with the Secretaria de Salud (Health Secretariat) in Sonora, El Colegio de Sonora, and Universidad de Sonora, in Mexico, to study dengue in theArizona-Sonora border region. The project stemmed from research that found inconsistencies in where the transmission of dengue was occurring despite the mosquito carrier being present in most neighborhoods in the border region. Arizona and Mexico partners worked together to study the differences in where the disease was most active. The project was led by Kacey C. Ernst an infectious disease epidemiologist from the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health in collaboration with researchers from government and institutional partners in Sonora.


Mirroring the domestic scene, institutions are turning to industry partners abroad to bring a practical, applied dimension to the student experience—for example, by creating internship programs for study abroad participants. Partnerships with industry to provide corporate training for employees are also an emerging model.


Global Cooperative Education at Northeastern University

For over 100 years, cooperative education (co-op) has been the cornerstone of Northeastern University’s (MA) educational model. Co-op started in 1909 with eight engineering students and four Boston employers as an “earn to learn” program, and has since evolved into a research-based, integrated learning experience that has engaged close to 9,000 students, and 3,000 employers in 35 states and 90 countries around the world. Nine Northeastern University colleges and schools participate in the program, as well as over 70 co-op faculty coordinators. The Global Experience website allows students to search for current opportunities across organizations and industries around the world.

Establishing Partnerships. “Establishing partnerships with international businesses and corporations happens in a variety of ways—some corporations seek cooperation with the university, in other cases the university seeks partners that have a strong or growing presence in the region of interest, or are closely aligned with students’ majors and interests. First introductions between the university and the potential partner abroad are often made by domestic corporations that already employ Northeastern students, and also conduct business with the international corporations of interest. Leveraging alumni relationships is another important way of connecting students and organizations—sometimes alumni are even able to employ students themselves. We leverage students’ parents’ connections in a similar way,” said Maria Stein, Northeastern’s associate vice president for cooperative education and career development.

Format of the Co-op Program. The co-op program is designed as a cost-effective strategy for workforce development, both domestically and abroad. Students are paid a wage by the employer, but do not require expensive benefits such as health insurance. Co-op is different from internships—students alternate classroom studies with full-time work in career-related jobs for six months. “International placement of students is usually one calendar year long,” Stein explained. “Students start by attending classes at the exchange university for a semester—usually January to mid-May. During that time they are typically able to secure a position at a preferred company, and start working there full-time in the second semester—typically July through December. If they are spending the year in a non-English speaking country, students usually have a conversational knowledge of host country language, and have the opportunity to hone their language skills during their stay.”

Challenges. The main challenges for the university, according to Stein, involve student visa procedures and housing arrangements. “It is difficult in some countries to obtain permission to pay students for their work. Other countries regularly change their visa policies, which presents an additional challenge and complicates the process. Another challenge is finding appropriate housing arrangements for the students—help and input from the employer company is instrumental in this process, which includes locating safe areas and neighborhoods with proximity to public transportation to the student’s place of work. Usually, more than one student is placed within the same company, which provides a cohort-style experience for our students.”

Value Added for Students. For students, co-op represents an approach to intellectual and professional growth and career success through continual learning and integration. The goal of the program is to prepare students to apply knowledge and skills to unfamiliar tasks and activities in various contexts, and continue to learn in a work-based environment. This model aims to produce graduates who are critical thinkers, culturally adept, globally aware, confident, and self-directed learners experienced in multiple organizational types and environments. 

NGOs and other international organizations

As institutions seek opportunities for students and faculty to engage internationally around specialized topics, partnerships with NGOs and other (non-corporate) entities may help fill particular niches, and provide a platform for research and experience-based learning. Given their roots in the community, partnering with local NGOs can enhance the effectiveness of projects with a social or economic development component. Along with private sector counterparts, various organizations (e.g., health-care providers, research centers, and education providers) may serve as partners for internships and visiting scholar placements.


The United Nations (UN) maintains formal partnerships with 27 universities worldwide. As an affiliate to the UN Department of PublicInformation as a Non-Governmental Organization (UN DPI NGO), Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey is one such partner. Through this relationship, Rutgers students have access to a variety of events and activities at UN headquarters in New York, including internship and research opportunities. Representatives from the institution also attend a DPI NGO annual conference that brings together more than 1,700 UN-affiliated non-governmental organizations from around the world to discuss a variety of issues of importance to the UN, including disarmament and security. DPI NGO affiliates regularly share information about UN causes and initiatives with their constituents. In the case of Rutgers, this includes its campuses and the surrounding communities.


Like on the home campus, the partnering unit within each entity abroad will vary depending on the activities entailed in the relationship, as well as organizational structure and culture. Generally, the partnership should engage units at an equivalent level in each organization—in most cases it would not make sense, for example, to establish a partnership between an academic department on one side, and an entire institution on the other. Finding the appropriate entity with which to partner within a corporation or other type of organization may require some trial and error as the parameters and scope of the relationship are defined.


Multiple Purposes, Multiple Partners: The University of Rochester (NY)

In compiling its global engagement portfolio, the University of Rochester (UR) has established relationships with a number of different types of entities abroad to collaborate for specific purposes. These include:

Higher education institutions. The University of Ghana and Rochester have developed a multifaceted collaborative research, training, and academic partnership that spans multiple academic disciplines and research domains, ranging from cultural studies and historic preservation to mechanical engineering. Graduate student researchers from Ghana spend up to a year learning advanced research methods at Rochester, while UR students participate in short courses and field study programs with their counterparts in Ghana. In addition, the Department of Microbiology at Ghana has been a client for UR mechanical engineering students who design and construct specific devices needed by the department as part of their senior experimental design projects.

Government agencies and health-care providers. Since the mid-1980s, the Department of Pediatrics at UR’s Golisano Children’s Hospital has partnered with Northern Ireland’s University of Ulster, the Seychelles Ministries of Health and Education, and local hospitals in the Republic of Seychelles on the Seychelles Child Development Study. The project has two primary aims: “evaluating the development of children in Seychelles, and finding out if the low levels of mercury in the fish diet during pregnancy can have an effect on the development of the child.”

Industry. In collaboration with UBS AG, UR administers a dual degree with Switzerland’s Universität Bern. The program is offered to UBS employees worldwide; upon graduation, students receive a master of science in wealth management from UR, and a master of advanced studies in finance from Universität Bern. Over two years, “course work combines an academic approach delivered by internationally recognized academics and practitioners with practice-based intuition from UBS’s own in-house experts. . . . [Students] apply the course contents they have learned in practical projects relevant to their own daily business activities.”​


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Dimension #5: Types of Agreements


Written agreements—often referred to as memoranda of understanding, or MOUs—codify the specific terms of a partnership, and serve as a mechanism by which all parties formally commit to the relationship. There are three main MOU scenarios, each of which is appropriate for different types of partnerships and collaborations, and the goals that accompany them.

No written institutional agreement

For collaborations at the individual faculty level (e.g., basic research collaborations and joint teaching endeavors that do not involve student travel), a written institutional MOU may not be required. Issues such as intellectual property and liability insurance coverage are generally managed through established practices related to visiting researchers in residence and grants management.

An MOU also may not be necessary at the preliminary phase (one might say the courtship phase) of a relationship when no specific activities are planned; cultural norms and expectations, as well as the concreteness of discussions, will dictate the point at which an agreement should come into play. When in doubt, institutions’ legal counsel can provide advice on whether a formal agreement is needed.​


Shifting the Narrative

“Our institution has over 500 MOUs with institutions around the world!”

As partnership activity increased in the post-2000 era, for many institutions, signing MOUs with counterparts around the world became a badge of honor—the prevailing mentality was “the more the better.” Often, however, the result was that a few years later, the senior international officer had accumulated a drawer full of MOUs that had produced little or no actual results or impact (see Dimension #6).

Now, many institutions are becoming more selective about their agreements.  Considerable administrative effort and resources are often expended in the process of developing and signing an MOU; those that produce little or no activity are a drain on resources that could be better deployed elsewhere. 

Focusing on activity instead of paper can help to shift the metrics and institutional narrative from sheer numbers to actual activities, desired outcomes, and impact of partnerships. Implementing robust proposal and review processes for agreements (more on how to do this will be covered in Installments #2 and #3 in this series) is helpful in avoiding spur-of-the moment agreement signings. Institutions may also consider developing guidelines that specify what types of relationships and collaborative activities require a written agreement, and which can proceed without a formal MOU. 

Agreements of intentionality

The basic criteria for an agreement being classified as one of intentionality lies in the lack of specific activity framed or articulated in the agreement. This type of agreement has various names in the field:

  • Letter of intent (LOI)
  • Memorandum of understanding (MOU)
  • Collaboration agreement
  • Cooperation agreement
  • Affiliation agreement

Each of these agreement names may have slight variations, yet all are general “handshake” or “umbrella” agreements—agreements to agree—which require additional agreements for specific activities (all would have clauses that require additional MOUs for specific activities to be pursued under their general umbrella). Such agreements could simply identify basic aims for possible future collaborations in the most general senses, or they could specify overarching goals and scope of a partnership, including methods for organization and communication as well as clauses for review and termination.

Agreements of intentionality typically serve only a few purposes, most of them diplomatic; they establish a tacit connection with other institutions or entities if this is something both institutions desire, and create a framework for future activity—if and when both are ready to move in this direction. Some institutions in the United States and Europe are moving away from signing general agreements due to the administrative burden involved in reviewing, negotiating, signing, sending, and storing them. For many, however, they remain important umbrella instruments for a series of implementation agreements that will follow.  

It is recommended that institutions sign intentional agreements only if the following criteria are met: 



University of Tulsa’s MOU Typology

In 2012, the University of Tulsa (OK) developed a set of guidelines for international partnerships, which outline six specific types of MOUs that the institution uses to establish relationships with counterparts abroad. The first type, a general MOU agreement, is an “agreement of intentionality,” which “states the intention of the institutions to explore the potential for collaborative activities in different research areas.” Of particular importance, the guidelines underscore that agreements of this type “do not include specific activities and must be implemented through addenda or separate specific agreements that are required to be approved by authorized officials.”

The remaining five categories of MOUs are “agreements of implementation,” and are based on the primary activities entailed in the partnership. They include:

  • Agreements for reciprocal student exchanges
  • Short-term study abroad agreements
  • Agreements for research, technical, or scientific cooperation
  • Graduate studies agreements
  • Dual degree agreements

For each category of agreements, Tulsa’s guidelines include information about who within the institution must approve the MOU, and other details related to implementation.​

Agreements of Implementation

Implementation agreements often follow intentional agreements and are much more specific. Typically, they specify objectives, outputs, financial and other resources, responsibilities, and duration—they outline specific actions and parameters of collaboration to be undertaken by the partners, and they specify how these are to be accomplished. Whereas agreements of intention can often be signed prior to significant engagement between the would-be partners, implementation agreements should reflect sustained discussion between the partners such that both sides are reasonably comfortable with the terms and parameters outlined. ​



  1. General agreements are signed only when absolutely necessary.
  2. Standard institutional templates exist, have been developed with/by legal counsel, and have the following components:
    1. Clearly articulated purpose
    2. Duration, expiration, and terms for renewal
    3. Responsible parties
    4. ​Severability clauses
  3. The institution is willing to work with a partner institution’s templates, if necessary, to avoid an adversarial tendering process.
  4. Negotiation and implementation occurs at appropriate levels according to institutional governance and standards (e.g., review and development does not occur in a vacuum and does not get lost in bureaucracy).
  5. Signature and ratification occur at appropriate levels according to institutional standards or governance.
  6. Review of specifics occurs by appropriate authorities and stakeholders (e.g., graduate/post-graduate mobility is reviewed by graduate school deans).
  7. Stewardship and facilitation of review occurs and is timely; the process is documented and responsibilities are clear.
  8. The office or unit responsible for stewardship and facilitation has clear information about institutional standards and expectations for agreement development and conducts outreach to internal and external stakeholders as appropriate.
  9. Clear and searchable records are kept regarding all agreements (active, expired, or cancelled) using institutional standards for data collection and record retention.
  10. Agreement originals are retained according to institutional archiving principles.


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Dimension #6: Impact

International partnerships ask institutions to connect part of their growth to the actions of another institution or organization—something relatively new to many colleges and universities. Ideally, such linkages also lead institutions to think about the impact of their actions beyond themselves, and to consider their role as institutional citizens of a global world of higher education.

This is an exciting possibility as well as a daunting one. While the five dimensions outlined above are fairly straightforward—a cataloguing of characteristics of partner relationships—impact is a more complicated proposition. Impact can be defined in a multitude of ways and from many perspectives (economic, social, academic, etc.), and takes time to assess and understand. It is also not static—as conditions change, the scope and reach of a particular partnership may shift significantly as well.

The following typology offers one way of thinking through the impact of partner relationships on the institutions involved and the broader communities and contexts in which they are situated. It stems from the assumption that a successful partnership—with maximum impact—is one in which all parties have gained something of value from the relationship. It is important to note that the categories are not mutually exclusive; a single partnership can fall under several headings or move from one to another during the course of its lifetime. The typology includes:



Signed agreements that have not produced any partnership activities, beyond delegation visits, and exist only on paper. These indicate a lack of genuine interest in the partnership and having too many can reflect badly on an institution.


Arrangements that once produced activity and outcomes, but no longer do. Dormancy can occur for various reasons but calls for meaningful communication with the partner on whether to continue or not.


Arrangements in which one party benefits at the expense of another. These are sometimes explicitly exploitative and extractive; more often, however, they are the result of one side making all decisions and determining activities for both.


Arrangements in which one or both parties provide resources for assisting or supporting the other. Capacity-building or development projects fall under this heading. These work best when the resource differential between partnering institutions is countered by recognition of the resource differential between their respective countries, inclusion of both sides in planning and managing the partnership, and articulation of the intangible benefits that the receiving partner contributes to the other.

Reciprocal (sometimes called transactional)

Arrangements in which each partner receives something of equal value. These can be viewed as trades, as in the case of student or faculty exchanges.

Generative (sometimes called transformational)

Arrangements in which partners combine resources to create something new that they share equally. These can have great impact across the institutions as they continue to catalyze new activities and create platforms for mutual growth. The development of collaborative research centers and joint degrees are examples.

Common good

Arrangements that include goals extending beyond the specific partners. These linkages explicitly address pressing issues, community development, advancing knowledge, and moving toward a global network of higher education that benefits all countries, reverses brain drain, and values a wide range of institutional types.


This typology can be an important tool for institutions and individuals throughout the partnership development and implementation process. At the planning stage, it can inform decisions about the particular constellation of characteristics (along Dimensions #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5, described previously) that are selected for a partnership. If the intention is a reciprocal relationship, for example, activities will be limited, and the terms of the MOU will reflect this clearly defined scope. Generative relationships, on the other hand, may require collaboration at a different level (institution versus a single department) and a broader agreement that leaves room for a range of activities.

While the impact of a particular partnership can be determined to some extent by design, an array of external factors come into play upon implementation; thus the typology is an equally important tool for assessment. Certainly, no one intends to create inactive, dormant, or parasitic relationships. Being able to recognize when relationships have—for whatever reason—devolved into these categories is important so that corrections can be made, or the relationships discontinued. The following three installments in this series of Internationalization in Action will address assessment of international partnerships in more detail.​


Toward Impactful Partnerships: Association Research and Resources

Given their broad membership base, higher education associations have access to a wide variety of institutional experiences and perspectives from the field. A number of associations have leveraged this access to gather information about what works when it comes to international higher education partnerships, compile examples of good practice, and provide guidance to institutions seeking to broaden their international engagement. Examples focusing on different types of collaborations and partnerships include:

Based on an analysis of standards of good practice set forth by organizations in the United States and around the world, ACE’s 2015 publication International Higher Education Partnerships: A Global Review of Standards and Practices identifies key issues entailed in developing and implementing sound international partnerships, and explores strategies for addressing them effectively.

In spring 2016, ACE released a special edition of Internationalization in Action called Connecting Classrooms: Using Online Technology to Deliver Global Learning. Drawing on the experience of institutions that participated in the ACE-SUNY Center for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Internationalization Through Technology Awards Program, the installment features good practices and lessons learned for collaborative teaching via technology.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators’ 2012 publication Public-Private Partnerships examines international partnerships between higher education institutions and private sector entities. It addresses questions such as what constitutes a public-private partnership, how they function best, what challenges they present, and what potential benefits they offer.


The Association of American Universities’ 2014 publication Principles and Guidelines for Establishing Joint Academic Programs and Campuses Abroad provides guidance for institutions on managing issues surrounding academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and nondiscrimination, among others, that may arise in the development and implementation of collaborative academic initiatives.


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Final Thoughts

These are fluid, dynamic times for partnership development, in which institutions are rethinking what they want from partnerships, recognizing both the value and the responsibilities that come with linking to another institution, exercising more intentionality and prioritization, and re-imagining themselves not as ensconced scholarly communities but as participants in a global community of higher education.

The six dimensions of partnership characteristics outlined here paint a picture of the current partnership landscape, and outline the array of options and variations available to institutions as they engage globally. The next installment in the series focuses on putting this knowledge to use at the institutional level. It presents a step-by-step process by which institutions can develop a strategic plan for their partnership activity that is firmly rooted in institutional goals and strategy, and provides a roadmap to guide future endeavors abroad. Stay tuned for more in early 2017!


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