During 2021, we worked in partnership with a diverse set of clients – and among our most interesting and innovative partners are University Alliances.
In this article, we will talk about what we have learned from working with University Alliances, what challenges they face, and what innovative approaches we have seen from them.
What is a University Alliance?
A University Alliance is a coalition of universities that share common objectives and goals. They partner together to share resources, create innovative educational experiences and improve research outcomes. Clearly, the final goal for these alliances is to have a long-lasting impact and contribute to the wider society.
Most alliances choose an area to focus on which is driven by the specialization and excellence of its members. They often create centers of excellence and knowledge hubs in those areas.
This enables students, researchers, and staff in these areas to collaborate across member universities – enabling research collaboration, student involvement, partnerships between universities and industries & shaping future policy.
Why do University Alliances exist?
There are several trends in research that explain why leading universities seek to form alliances:
- Research excellence has become more scattered – it is no longer concentrated into a few historical universities / research centers.
- Research has become more inter-disciplinary – which opens up the need for collaboration between departments of the university but also between different departments of different universities.
- Bilateral collaborations were successful – and caused institutions to go even further. The ability to deliver impactful research and innovation was realized and funding for such partnerships (funding the alliance itself) became available.
What are the common objectives of University Alliances?
Each alliance will define its own objectives based on the shared interests of its member universities.
There are, however, some objectives that are typically common for each Alliance that we have worked with, namely:
- Promote better research outcomes by:
- Advancing research quality
- Increasing dissemination of research and knowledge
- Sharing resources
- Securing increased funding for research
- Develop vocational & educational excellence by:
- Creating hubs of excellence
- Defining enhanced educational experiences
- Increasing involvement of stakeholders
- Maximize impact by:
- Bridging the academic and non-academic world
- Fostering knowledge exchange and sharing
- Influencing policy
Let’s examine each of these objectives and see how some University Alliances are leading the way with innovative approaches that help them achieve their outcomes.
Advancing Research Quality
Alliances strive to develop & promote the quality, integrity, and credibility of their research. When Alliances develop common research interests and ideas, this enables researchers to collaborate across disciplines, institutions, and regions. Alliances will often seek to build and share international networks and research infrastructure with member institutions.
The end result is an increase in research quality and a more coherent body of research that can be applied to the research areas of concern.
- Neurotech EU is the European University of ‘Brain and Technology’. Their alliance boasts €231m joint funding and 5533 joint publications across 8 member institutions. Collaboration and partnership is what enables this success and a definite advance in research quality.
- NUW and UTS are creating Australia’s largest, highest quality, and most industry-engaged research entity. This is described as an “unprecedented grouping of world-class researchers, and a step change in research capacity”. The innovations developped at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Facility are bringing a positive social and economic transformation for the Western Parkland City.
- The University Alliance for Sustainability (UAS) develops common research interests across 4 universities in 3 different continents by developing joint research and teaching projects.
The University Alliance UK published a report highlighting the quality of member institutions as they move towards their goal of the UK achieving a 2.4% share of GDP on R&D expenditure by 2027. Collaboration has played a fundamental role in this research quality.
Increasing Dissemination of Research and Knowledge
Incredibly hard work goes into conducting and publishing research. Yet the impact of the research depends not only on its quality but the effectiveness of the researchers to disseminate this knowledge and their ability to share it with experts who benefit from awareness of it.
Providing a platform for researchers to discover each other’s research and for a wider sharing and promotion of this research to industry and industry partners is vital. Alliances provide a wider platform for their research than any given institution can do – and this is where their wider associations and networks also play an important role.
- Neurotech promote research of member universities by allowing visitors to their home page to click which members to see their total research projects and funding raised. Clicking a 3rd or 4th member will then increase the filtering so that visitors can see which projects they all partnered with.
- Neurotech also show a filterable list of universities member publications with the ability to open that list directly. This showcases which research the members have collaborated on.
Alliances can actively foster cross-member collaboration by providing centralized tools that are used by members. The resources of all member universities can be brought to bear in the creation and management of such tools.
The designation of mentors across member universities is also a highly valuable and productive way to share resources and foster collaboration.
- The 4EU+ Alliance clearly states its objectives for sharing research infrastructure, including creating an inventory and categorizing physical research facilities.
- The Eutopia Alliance has created the Eutopia-Train initiative which benefits through mutualized resources and tools to boost the research capacity of the six member universities. The project includes an Open Access metadata portal, a common HR strategy and roadmap & the creation of a Eutopia grants, legal and innovation office.
- In 2019, the UIA: Alliance launched a chatbot initiative across member universities to scale the use of AI-based technology to improve student access to information and reduce communication bottlenecks.
Securing Increased Funding for Research
Alliances themselves are often given funding based on their mission, their members’ reputation, and the impact of the research produced by their members.
By investing time in forming partnerships with other universities with strong expertise in certain areas, each member university can increase the funding that is available to their faculty.
It also happens that several universities within the alliance might submit collaborative research proposals. Here, being part of an alliance helps greatly and promotes such collaboration at the proposal stage – as well as increasing the chances of funding being successfully achieved.
- Neurotech EU boasts 2473 EU-funded projects by partner universities, raising €1.6 billion.
- Arqus Alliance received €5m funding from the European Universities Initiative (in turn funded by the Erasmus+) and a further €2m in the Horizon 2020 call for support for the Research & Innovation dimension of European Universities to tackle 3 challenges (Joint Science & Innovation, New Perspectives on Research & Open to Society).
- CIVICA Research received €2m funding from Horizon 2020, under the chapter “Science with and for Society”.
Creating Hubs of Excellence
Each alliance defines its areas of focus – topics that their institutions bring strong expertise in which are of vital interest to the world and society at large. Whether it be engineering, climate, democracy, cancer research, or others, alliances will seek to form a hub of excellence or a ‘knowledge hub’ for each of these.
Alliances drive excellence further by creating initiatives, funding opportunities, working groups, student projects, and collaborative workspaces.
The vocational and educational strategy of member institutions drives participation where researchers and people from the industry are invited to collaborate.
This builds a genuine ecosystem of diverse actors passionate about promoting excellence and quality research within this domain.
- The Forthem Alliance has created 4 Open Labs (with 3 more Labs to launch soon). A student interested in one of these Labs (topics such as Food Science or Climate & Resources can participate in developing a workshop and will receive hourly-based compensation for their work). This innovative compensation approach has already seen 500 staff, students and external partners participate. Other options exist to take part such as completing an internship in that Lab (topic) in a partner institution. Each of the 7 labs is coordinated by one of the member institutions and features members from at least 3 countries.
Defining Enhanced Educational Experiences
Student participation is vital for the next generation of research to be possible. Encouraging students to solve problems in teams and to acquire knowledge from different disciplines is important. The knowledge hubs provide such opportunities and alliances welcome student participation for this reason.
Alliances often develop future curriculum and courses based on student and faculty working groups across institutions.
- The FORTHEM Alliance has created 7 Labs (hubs of excellence in a given topic) and will create new online teaching material for each in the FORTHEM Digital Academy. This will comprise new intensive courses, joint scientific publications and final reports of civic engagement projects. On the long run, they will establish collective PhD groups and joint degree programs (FORTHEM Campus) related to the seven topics.
- University Alliance UK members use their close relationships with industry partners and employers to collaborate on developing curriculum and delivering practical, skills-led learning with real-world experience and on-the-job training. One example of this Birmingham University who collaborated with HuffPost which set up the HuffPost Centre for Journalism within the university’s school of media. This gives students the chance to get work experience in the newsroom while HuffPost designs modules with real-life challenges for students.
- The NUW Alliance Multiversity is a physical site of 11k hectares surrounding the Western Sydney airport that 5 Sydney based universities are collaborating to create. Courses are delivered by partner universities and enable further study at any of the member institutions. The multiversity is a strategic element of creating a new city development in West Parkland City – which the Australian government describe as “the largest city development since Canberra”.
- The Bai Xian Alliance has an Alumni Initiative Award that invites alumni to develop socially responsible action plans that address challenges faced by Asia’s communities, environments, and economies.
Increasing Involvement of Stakeholders
Alliances create mechanisms to stimulate bottom-up engagement of students, researchers, staff, faculty, and others.
This can involve cross-institution collaborations, seed funding of bottom-up projects, interactive training courses, and more. Mobility is a key theme and the provision of bottom-up engagement experiences and training across member universities is an innovative way to ensure those involved are highly engaged.
- Civica, the European University of Social Sciences, state on their website that most collaborative research projects involve 3-4 member universities and the biggest project involved six. Their Open Labs projects can be browsed by member – with each project getting a descriptions and an open invitation to get involved by showing the email address of the relevant contact person.
- EUGLOH partners co-operated to form teams across universities to participate in the EU Virus hackathon.
- Una Europa provide a seed funding initiative to support the initiation of long-term collaborative activities between the partner universities. The idea is to “plant a seed” that can eventually attract external funding.
- Circle U connect their Knowledge Hubs via their Open School of Public Governance. This enables the development of joint interdisciplinary educational courses and programs on both Masters and PhD levels, and a continuous professional micro-credential development program relating interdisciplinary knowledge on climate change, global health and democracy with governance challenges.
Bridging the Academic and Non-Academic World
A major challenge for all universities is how to create better relationships with industry, for the many benefits that this involves.
An alliance that specializes in a theme (e.g. Neuroscience) will be an appealing partner for many in the industry. These partnerships bring outside expertise, funding, validity, and research applications to the universities involved. This also helps with the dissemination of research, which is a key aim of all alliances.
Introducing formats that trigger joint innovation processes between researchers and experts from their sector is a key activity.
- The EELISA Alliance created the Unfolds program to help students, academics, researchers, staff and key industry players to contribute and define how the institution can contribute to startups and innovation through the curriculum, seed funding, research projects and more. Furthermore, their InnoCORE program aims to transform the research & innovation dimension of EELISA by connecting researchers, innovators and non-academic stakeholders, and setting up a portfolio of shared scientific infrastructures.
- The NUW Alliance seeks to enhance collaboration between academic, industry and government players in a specific industry: energy. NUW Energy represents the largest and most compelling Australian research cohort to be addressing current energy issues. Representing a global network of leading industry partners and allied research agencies, NUW Energy enables simple, streamlined and direct access to world-class research expertise.
Fostering Knowledge Exchange and Sharing
Alliances will seek to share knowledge both internally and externally.
For internal knowledge sharing, programs will be set up that bring together various actors across member universities. The creation of interdisciplinary knowledge hubs, forums and events will help to share knowledge across member universities.
For external knowledge sharing, alliances have contacts or networks with industry, cultural institutions, political institutions global bodies. The sharing of knowledge, which includes dissemination of research but also media and professional communication and open events for the general public helps to build a connection between the alliance and the outside world.
The alliance can help shape future government policy in this way by maintaining active connections and focusing on research and innovation in strategic areas that relate to relevant policy
- The University Alliance UK publishes a list of experts & their area of expertise so that journalists and conference organizers can find them.
- The Neurotech EU Graduate School mandates that each student will be advised by 3 mentors; two from partnering universities and the third from the industrial or societal partners – enhancing knowledge sharing amongst all parties.
- The ERUA Alliance created a system of travelling seminars which finance the mobility of 3 groups of 10 students per university every year. Each group will visit another alliance university, accompanied by their professors for a collaborative learning experience. This encourages different types of cooperation (co-teaching, visits to other campuses, field studies) as well as to developing project-based mobilities
- The EUTOPIA Alliance has set up a Young Leaders Academy to support research exchanges between high-potential, early to mid-career researchers from all partner universities and support their career development.
- Una Europa have a mentoring program “Live my Life” that is a joint format for job shadowing targeted at administrative professionals of member institutions. The provides the opportunity to engage the network via peer-to-peer working.
At Lounjee, we are very lucky to have worked with alliances such as BUA, UNA, BXAI, UAS this year and to have witnessed first-hand the innovative approaches in this space.
We see that university alliances advance research quality by sharing resources, securing increased funding, and collaborating. Educational outcomes are enhanced by involving more stakeholders and working with hubs or centers of excellence to facilitate collaboration across the ecosystem. Impact is maximized by bridging the gap between the academic world and the non-academic world and encouraging knowledge exchange. In particular, the dissemination of knowledge and research is enhanced greatly in an alliance context.
We are excited to see further innovations and developments through 2022.
If you are a member of an alliance and want to share some innovative approaches or unique programs that you run to help your alliance succeed, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll include you in a future article.