Understanding the benefits of collaboration

On the surface they make unlikely academic collaborators. One is a huge, multi-campus university with more than 45,000 students in one of the busiest cities on the planet. The other is a single-campus institution in a semi-rural location, renowned for its friendly, community atmosphere and the individual, tailored support it offers its 23,000 students.

Yet they have more in common than you might think. Both are recently established, aspiring institutions with many areas of common interest, including a firm commitment to student welfare and success, and, more importantly, big plans for the future. On 15th March 2011, Edge Hill University signed an historic agreement with the University of Johannesburg (UJ), marking the beginning of a new era of collaboration between these two ambitious institutions. Watch the historic moment here

 

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) formalises the growing partnership between academics at Edge Hill and UJ, and sets out a number of specific areas where collaboration will bring the most benefit to the universities, their staff and students.

We asked Dean of Learning and Teaching Development, Professor Mark Schofield, who orchestrated the MoU, and Professor Derek van der Merwe, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Johannesburg, what the agreement means for both institutions, now and in the future.

When did the partnership begin?

Mark Schofield: Back in 2006 I met Professor Gerrie Jacobs from UJ’s Division for Institutional Planning and Quality Promotion at an international educational conference. That meeting led to a collaboration with UJ’s Institutional Effectiveness team to help them design a curriculum that both supported South Africa’s new qualifications framework and made a difference to students. They were among the first universities in South Africa to work within the framework, and I think that demonstrates how forward thinking and ahead of the game they are as an institution.

Derek van der Merwe: Our e-learning unit has also developed a successful relationship with the SOLSTICE Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Edge Hill, which has supported a research project involving 14 South African universities. We expect this to lead to substantial joint publications and comparative studies between the two countries.

What does having an MoU mean to you?

DM: From our side, it is important for us to have an MoU with substance – not just a piece of paper, but something solid that will help to take both universities forward. That’s why it’s taken a fair amount of time to get to this point. We needed to build a groundswell of support for what we want to do and identify areas where substantive, mutually beneficial partnerships can take place.

MS: For Edge Hill, the MoU will help us take forward our research, teaching, student experience and internationalisation agendas. It’s not just research that will benefit from the collaboration; it will help to give our curriculum an international perspective and also enhance our students’ cultural understanding through working alongside more staff and students from South Africa in the future.

On the surface the two universities are very different. What makes you such a good match for collaboration?

DM: Yes, we are very different in terms of pure statistics, but our academic ethos is very similar. Our histories are not dissimilar, either. We both started with specific, vocational training: Edge Hill as a teacher training college; UJ as a technical college for gold mining expertise. Edge Hill has managed to maintain that focus on essential, vocational skills and that is something we want to establish at UJ.

MS: Fundamentally, I think we agree on the nature and purpose of higher education – i.e. the discovery, integration and application of knowledge for the common good. We also both have a strong commitment to enhancing the learning experience of our students and mutual interest in Widening Participation and eLearning.

What do you hope to gain from each other?

DM: Edge Hill has a proven reputation in areas such as quality assurance, teaching and learning, and academic development and support, which we would like to tap into. We have thousands of underprepared students every year in need of professional guidance to ensure their success. Mark and his colleagues in SOLSTICE have a wealth of knowledge, experience and a record of tangible results in this area.

MS: UJ is in the top third of institutions in South Africa for research profile. Building a research culture is key for both institutions, so we have a lot we can learn from each other in that respect. We will also further share ideas on quality assurance, academic leadership, and academic policy and planning, while building on existing mutual research strengths in areas as diverse as palliative care, HIV, paramedic education, management, special educational needs, and plant DNA and fingerprinting.

DM: UJ is all about skills enhancement, building a skills base for a developing country, and Edge Hill has a long history of providing that sort of education. As a young university, our priority is to give our students a holistic experience, to promote an ethos of feeling valued as someone with a set of skills that are useful for society. Edge Hill is very good at that, as you can see from their consistently high student satisfaction results, and we want to learn from that.

What does a successful collaboration look like to you? What are your hopes for the future?

MS: Seeing research projects in action and being able to clearly demonstrate the impact of the collaboration. More channels will be opened up and, hopefully, this will lead to further collaborations as we get to know each other’s institution better.

DM: For me it will have worked when we don’t refer to the MoU anymore. The relationship is just part of the social fabric of the two institutions with each one being the other’s first point of reference. I also hope we can use the success of our partnership to create more partnerships over time, particularly with other African universities, in a tripartite arrangement. We want our relationship with Edge Hill to act as a model for future collaborations.