Creating Collaboration: A Vitae YNE Hub Good Practice Workshop 2010 output

Creating collaborations - an out put from the 2010 Vitae Yorkshire and North East Hub which focused on the enablers and barriers of creating collaborations


In the present economic climate, there is considerable interest in co-ordination and collaboration between Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to provide training provision for researchers.  This issue receives a great deal of attention in local and national researcher development circles, as training networks are being formalised in joint funding applications to funding bodies such as the ESRC (2011) and AHRC (2011).  Coordination and collaborations are generally pitched as economical approaches for supporting researcher development with high quality development programmes, and could be seen as the future of all researcher development.  However, the concept of co-ordination and collaboration is nothing new in the researcher development arena, and a workshop called Creating Collaboration in the Pathways to a Sustainable Future programme (Vitae, 2011a) provided the platform for identifying the reasons for collaboration, exploring the challenges to collaboration and sharing good practice: thereby highlighting the benefits, barriers and enablers (respectively) as well as providing examples of models for collaborating which are proving to be successful.


The benefits of two or more HEIs working together to coordinate and collaborate on researcher development was reported by staff developers (n=9) in the workshop at several levels.  Benefits were identified for researchers (students and staff), for the researcher developers and for their university which will ultimately benefit the economy.  These benefits include:

  • Positively impacting on the general research environment by generating better research staff and student experiences.  The research environment has been evaluated by Careers in Research Online (Mellors-Bourne & Metcalfe, 2009) and Postgraduate Research Experience (Gosia Kulej & Pam Wells, 2009) surveys respectively;
  • Increasing the range of training provision offered to researchers, providing a broader range of skills training and different learning approaches to suit the learner that ultimately enhance their professional efficacy and increase their employability.  These attributes have been evaluated by the Impact and Evaluation Group (Vitae, 2011b);
  • Increasing the number of training opportunities where courses are duplicated, making training more accessibility for busy students (especially Part-time students);
  • Sharing of costs and resources, thereby increasing the cost effectiveness of training;
  • Enabling benchmarking of training, thereby providing the opportunity for the scope of training programmes to be assessed and enhanced;
  • Enabling mentoring, sharing workload and learning together, to increase the level of support and informal trainer staff development between HEIs which positively impacts on the quality and range of training offered;
  • Enabling the sharing of ideas, providing more opportunities for teaching innovations;
  • Gaining recognition for your HEIs' high quality training provision, thereby enhancing their reputation;
  • Collaborating groups can demonstrate successes in designing, delivering and evaluating joint training and development provision, thus strengthening joint grant applications for training and development projects or winning funding for research(ers);
  • Increasing the range of experiences and the size of the class to an optimum level can enrich the discussions that take place, providing a more interesting environment for the participants.

Barriers and enablers.

Despite having clear benefits, the attendees of the Creating Collaborations workshop identified a number of potential barriers to collaborations that were explored during the course of discussions and, in the process, highlighted good practice that has been employed to circumvent these barriers during the creation of their own collaborations (see table 1.).

Table1.  Table of perceived barriers to creating collaborations and their associated solutions (characterised as enablers) that were identified by a number (n=9) of staff supporting researcher development.  Information has been grouped into five themes that included: 1) Management and delivery of researcher development programmes; 2) Institutional culture; 3) Resources; 4) Mobility; and 5) Legal issues.

1.Management and delivery of researcher development programmes.

Different HEI's infrastructures are used to manage and deliver training:

  • Committee structures involved in managing the programmes are different; their strategic priorities for researcher training and development may differ.
  • Some researcher development programmes are managed and delivered centrally; while others are managed and delivered locally (at the Faculty, School or Department level); and others are a mixture of the two.
  • Different communication channels are used for publicising training events.
  • Different booking systems/processes are employed.
Avoid overcomplicating and over-managing processes:
  • Have a good sharing infrastructure by forming an effective team with a flexible approach for coordinating/collaborating any training and development provision that is of interest.
  • An inter-university committee(s) with like-minded members (referred to as local champions) can dovetail HEI approaches to work collegially to deliver training. This team should include managers of local and central programmes.
  • This committee(s) can act as a communication hub for publicising events locally and coordinating booking. A common advertising and booking system can be considered where appropriate.
2.Institutional culture  HEI's operate in a competitive environment in relation to obtaining research staff, research students and winning research funding:
  • Sharing some areas of training and development provision may be perceived as a risk to competitive advantages. The benefits may therefore appear to be intangible.
Accept that there may be limits and work within them, whilst demonstrating the benefits.
  • Each HEI can deliver areas of a training course/programme to their own researchers.
  • Generate a good evidence base of the benefits of collaboration and communicate this to your local executive committees. This may generate a cultural shift if the level of benefit exceeds the perceived level of risk.
3.Resources There are financial and human resource costs associated with sharing/collaborating and this could lead to concerns over:
  • Increased administrative loads involved with organising, designing, delivering and evaluating development programmes.
  • Increased cost of delivering courses due to the presence of extra students from other universities.
  • Researcher development programmes being swamped by researchers from other HEIs, thereby delivering events that apparently benefiting other institutions more than your own.
Avoid overcomplicating and over-managing the processes and use a flexible approach can elevate the strain on resources by:
  • Networking and Building relationships is pivotal in forming the coordination and collaboration team and demonstrating added value is important in its success.
  • Complement (rather than replace) pre-existing university processes and procedures to keep the extra administration burden to a minimum, For example: provide researchers with hyperlinks to online material at other HEIs to advertise the shared events at negligible extra cost; and have a flexible approach to booking as required by the collaborating HEIs, where the institution hosting an event can offer to provide the administration for that event or bookings can be administered by each institution on rotation.
  • Places can be offered to other institutions, subject to availability and with a maximum intake from each HEI, to ensure a good balance of student numbers from each HEI in the collaboration.
  • Collaborate using mutually agreed models for coordinating and collaborating to ensure that the administrative cost is fair. Use reciprocal arrangements to remove any administration duties associated with charging attendees. Charge for external researchers to attend where the cost of the event goes beyond reciprocal arrangements.
  • Apply for funding for the cost of the administration if it is possible.
4.Mobility Inertia of participants to take up training opportunities at other institutions:
  • This issue may be due to the travelling required or the cost of travel.
  • This issue could also be as a result of lack of awareness of what is on offer at other institutions.
Offer free transport for researchers to other institutions on occasions to make the travelling process as easy as possible and remove the cost to the researcher.
  • Collaborate with other HEIs in close proximity to reduce the effort and cost of travelling.
  • Where demand is high enough: facilitators can travel to the collaborating institutions, thereby eliminating the need for researchers to travel.
  • Use good platforms for advertising to raise awareness and better communicate with the intended audience where necessary.
5.Legal issues Software licenses do not extend beyond each HEI.
  • As a consequence, there could be difficulty in supplying computer passwords to students from other institutions for one off development sessions.
It is possible to overcome these issues:
  • Depending on your software license and ICT system, it may be possible to obtain a number of guest users from your ICT Dept.
  • It could be possible for students to bring their own laptop and software into the workshop.

In Summary

It is clear from the information gathered in this workshop that: where there is a willingness to collaborate; an appreciation of potential barriers and limitations; as well as possible enablers; there can be (and currently are) successful collaborations.

Key areas for the consideration by anyone creating new collaborations should include 1) The management and delivery of researcher development programmes, 2) The institutional culture, 3) Resources, 4) Mobility, and 5) Legal issues.  While successful collaborations appear to have a number of important features in these areas including: the formation of a cross university collaboration team to manage the collaborations; avoiding overcomplicating and over-managing processes; using agreed models for collaboration that work within boundaries set by institutional culture that provide enough flexibility for coordination and collaboration to take place in any acceptable and useful form; and taking into account any limitations (both legal and practical).

These considerations are exemplified in Appendix A.  Case study of accessing training at the University of Sunderland.

As a final note, the authors of it document wish to acknowledge that the guidance provided is based on the experiences of building collaborations at a limited number of HEIs with only one case study documented which has not been considered beyond the boundaries of a small workshop.   As a consequence, it should be considered as a short report on the Creating Collaboration workshop that contains a number of useful points for guidance but should never be considered as a definitive guidance.  However, it does provide a reference point for comparisons by other HEIs across the UK that can result in the generation of such a guide if it is deemed appropriate.