| 3 minute read

How should universities nurture strategic partnerships?

Tasha Day

How should universities nurture strategic partnerships? Should these partnerships be stimulated from the top-down or the bottom-up? Each year, the UIIN conference provides a platform to discuss these issues and hear from best practice in the field. To bring these insights to our wider community, we present to you our Conference Conversations series.

The following insights come from the panel discussion Building Strategic Partnerships in STEM & SSH highlighting key learnings from Kelly Sexton (University of Michigan), Emma Salgård Cunha (University of Cambridge), Robert Giezendanner-Thoben (EPFL) and Adam Szigeti (Siemens Evosoft). Our panellists explored the most effective ways of building and nurturing strategic partnerships, including integrating top-down structures to support a bottom-up approach, and how to nurture these partnerships across disciplines.

Partnerships – top-down vs bottom-up

Strategic partnerships go beyond transactional collaborations, forming purposeful alliances to address shared goals. A current challenge for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) is that strategic partnerships are often rooted in individuals. In order to advance the future of partnerships, we need to think about how we can move beyond these so partnerships become more long-term, holistic and are not impeded by staff turnover.

Balancing bottom-up and top-down approaches is vital when supporting strategic partnerships. The bottom-up approach recognises that partnerships are all about people and gives university staff the freedom to develop connections within external organisations and see how these evolve. When people are free to take an organic approach to making connections, intrinsic motivation often pays for their willingness to participate.

On the other hand, labelling something as a strategic partnership (top-down) can be beneficial because it adds weight and enables more attention and resources to be directed the partnership, breaking down the barriers to collaboration. While allowing some freedom, structured interventions such as matchmaking events and industry challenge workshops help parties understand academia’s role and foster partnerships. Strategic labelling supports relationships beyond individuals, enhancing collaboration longevity.

When people are free to take an organic approach to making connections, intrinsic motivation often pays for their willingness to participate” – Adam Szigeti

Organisations should therefore equip themselves to facilitate both of these types of partnership – leaving space for the bottom-up discovery and relationship building phase whilst having the mechanisms in place to turn this relationship into a strategic partnership as it reaches maturity. We must take an approach that recognises researchers as our best business development staff and put them in the driving seat for collaboration. As boundary spanners, it is our job to play a facilitating role, imparting researchers with the skill set to develop a real alignment with public and private partners, introduce them to potential partners and then support researchers to turn these connections into fruitful collaborations.

If you enjoyed this discussion, you might like to read Six Dimensions of Readiness: What Universities Need to Engage and Collaborate or listen to our podcast series on Strategic Partnerships


Tasha Day (author) is a Project officer at UIIN, where she undertakes research activities and creates content on a wide variety of topics including entrepreneurship education, sustainability and research valorisation.

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