Cross-Border Partnerships in Higher Education:
Strategic Purpose and Complementary Advantage
One particularly relevant application of game theory is modeling the mutual assessments that two institutions work through when exploring the potential for collaboration and partnership. The benefits each party perceives the other pursuing and the effect of these intended outcomes on negotiating behavior set the terms for strategic action by both actors.
One instance of this general class of organizational behavior is the strategic partnering of universities and colleges in the developing world with established education institutions in the advanced West. This practice is becoming more evident as China’s rapid economic rise has prompted its leadership to explore how best to rapidly augment its capacity for providing professional education. In his article, “International Partnerships: A Game Theory Perspective” (New Directions in Higher Education, No. 150, Summer 2010), Yiyuan Jie examines how “…shared and divergent partner motivations and outcome expectations in a Chinese cross-border higher education program have created synergy and challenged the implementation of some of these partnerships” (Jie, p. 43)
The value-added the Chinese government is looking for in this scenario is the transfer of established and successful programs of education at European, Australian, and North American tertiary schools to fledgling Chinese colleges and universities. The developmental timelines required to generate such educational capacity domestically are clearly prohibitive, given the large number of college graduates China will need to staff its more advanced manufacturing and service sectors over the next decade as its economy rapidly evolves. The challenge facing the Chinese government is how to assess the quality of the educational services on offer from potential foreign partners and then to establish modi vivendi through which the instructional techniques, supports and methods of these off-shore schools can be inculcated into the allied Chinese colleges. The transfer of quality instructional practices and the accumulation of expertise for domestic educational capacity-building are goals which leave the Chinese vulnerable to fraudulent or inconsistent servicing.
Western universities, in their turn, are looking for new sources of revenue as the charges they levy on the families that provide the core of their traditional student populations become more onerous. With their long experience in curriculum development and refinement, and an abundance of highly qualified but unemployed doctoral degree holders in their institutional networks, Western universities are as interested in exporting their instructional services as they are in importing students. As globalization accelerates, however, the established Western academic powers also seek to enhance their institutional brands as cosmopolitan centers of excellence with world-wide reach and influence.
The game-theoretic elements of the process by which Chinese educational entities and Western post-secondary schools attempt to work out functional relationships emerge from the lack of trust, communication, and shared experience between these two categories of academic enterprise. Because they have such differences in fundamental perspective and understanding, the Chinese and the Western educators may bring different expectations to the common endeavors which their agreements describe. “The stability of such an equilibrium outcome (the collaborative program), …depends on whether it continues to generate the most mutually preferred outcomes for both players and whether there are other self-interests that are worth the player’s unilateral defective actions.” (Jie, p.46)
To test the relevance of game theory for the study of international educational partnerships, the author employed a case study focusing on the “Garden Executive Master of Business Administration” (GEMBA)”, a joint venture between the pseudonymous “Yu-Cai College” in southeast China and its U.S. partner, the so-called “Prancellion Business School”. While he masks the true identities of the two institutions, Jie claims that both are elite schools with well-established reputations. The GEMBA program consists of shared faculty in all courses, a virtual team project involving students from both institutions, and a culminating two-week residency at the American campus. The author’s methodology included site visits, semi-structured interviews, and the content analysis of key documents including mission statements, strategic plans, the partnership agreement, institutional publicity, course lists, and grading profiles.
Jie found that, after rough consonance on goals prevailed in the initial stages of the collaborative project, the two institutions moved toward difference emphases on brand enhancement and enrollment increase. Yu-Cai College was primarily interested in using the partnership to increase the number of qualified executives available for the increasingly complex business environment Chinese firms must face as they more fully engage international competition without government subsidies and tariff protection. Coincident with this focus was a concern for expanding the program to other areas of China and using the GEMBA program to enhance its regional reputation and thus draw more students to all its curricular options. The Prancellion School, by contrast, sought to enhance its international reputation for elite credentialing as the pool of best executive training candidates shifted to include a broader range of other-than-North American senior enterprise managers. But since the American institution was clearly the more experienced and highly regarded of the partners, it was also looking for more of a financial return on the collaboration than was Yu-Cai.
With regard to faculty development, Jie also found differing perspectives between the two academic players. While the Yu-Cai administration sought to improve the reputation and recognition of its professors through “junior faculty” relationships with better established American academics, the Prancellion School was looking to develop “real world” experience with successful Chinese firms which could be incorporated into its portfolio of case studies of firms operating in high-growth economies. These divergent intentions caused the expectations of each partner to deflect from a pattern of viable congruence.
Jie summarizes the dilemma defined by the game theoretic aspects of this cross-border educational partnership in the following question: “…can (the) partners negotiate to achieve the shared outcome given the current (more evolved) situation?” (Jie, p.51) The author offers two options to achieve a positive response to this challenge. First, he suggests there be more frequent face-to-face meetings between the respective teams of key stakeholders (tributary networks) at each organization so that elementary trust can be built. He sees this measure as also providing the opportunities for clarification and substantiation necessary to preempt major misunderstandings. Second, Jie proposes that the program be formally incorporated into the organizational structure of one of the partnered institutions so that a permanent directorate can have independent authority for the collaboration’s management. As noted in all network theory, the best way to remove the prospect of sub-optimal outcomes for both parties to a game theoretic scenario is to expand the networks of each player into a superordinate hierarchy.