1.2.3 Higher Education Partnerships

The emphasis USAID places on higher education and labor market linkages (as noted in the USAID Education Strategy’s Goal 2: “Improved ability of tertiary and workforce development programs to generate workforce skills relevant to a country’s development goals”[1]) has reinvigorated the field of higher education partnerships. The 2013 Conference featured a spirited panel discussion among representatives of facilitators of higher education partnerships, including RTI International and Higher Education for Development, and from U.S. higher education institutions themselves, including Rutgers University (New Jersey), and Nassau Community College (New York), both of which participate in USG-funded partnerships.  

RTI International is the lead implementer of the USAID-funded Excellence in Higher Education for Liberian Development (EHELD) cooperative agreement, with Rutgers University (the State University of New Jersey) as a key partner. EHELD is a five-year, US$18.5-million effort launched in February 2011 to help rebuild Liberia's universities and infrastructure after 15 years of civil war.  The project is assisting the leaders and faculty of the University of Liberia and Cuttington Universities, respectively, to develop centers of excellence (CoEs) in engineering and agriculture.  In late 2013, RTI and Rutgers also launched the USAID/Philippines Science Technology Research and Innovation for Development (STRIDE) project, a five-year, $31 million cooperative agreement to strengthen industry-linked research and education in Philippine universities. (along with partners, Florida State University and the University of Michigan).

Higher Education for Development (HED) is a Washington-based facilitator of global higher education partnerships. HED works in close partnership with USAID and operates with the advice and counsel of the six major presidential higher education associations to support the engagement of higher education in development issues worldwide.  HED’s BMENA-U.S. Community College Initiative involves U.S. community colleges in partnership with technical and vocational institutions in six BMENA countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen) to develop academic pathways that will provide students with the skills and opportunities they need to meet the demands of prioritized BMENA regional sectors and industries. The initiative consists of 10 USAID and US. State Department-funded partnerships, lasting three-six years (between 2010-2015), and involving 12 U.S. and 11 BMENA tertiary institutions.  Nassau Community College, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system is partnering with Al-Kafaat Foundation in Lebanon under the BMENA-U.S. Community College Initiative.  Nassau has assisted Al-Kafaat Foundation in developing an effective English as a Second Language program for the Lk-Kafaat technical school, assisted in establishing services for students with special needs, and is in the process of supporting development of entrepreneurship and business administration curricula.

Several important lessons learned were highlighted from these partners at the 2013 Conference:

Catalyzing partnerships:

  • Package and present partnerships as faculty, student, and institutional development opportunities. Community colleges and universities value internationalization and global engagement as a means of furthering the exposure of students and faculty members alike. Strategically packaging partnership opportunities in these terms can make opportunities more attractive to administrators, faculty boards, and external directors who may not otherwise see the value of deploying faculty members abroad.
  • Seek compatibility with faculty and institutional research interests for success. There may be conflicting incentives for university and community college faculty members regarding the attractiveness of these opportunities. In universities research funding and publishing are seen as central to the institutional mission. Community college faculty members tend to be very focused on local issues and needs. Selecting partners for which research and teaching interests of the faculty members align with the project’s mission can enhances the stability of the partnership by creating more natural person-to-person commitment.
  • Address institutional barriers to community college participation. HED has found that community colleges in particular may lack the administrative infrastructure to propose, accurately cost, and operate international programs; and to evaluate their performance.  While many colleges will have received project-based grant funding, managing international operations and programs entail a different set of skills to perform, as well as new risks to manage. Implementers should be aware of the possible need to help community colleges become effective partners through developing these systems and capabilities.
  • Create opportunities for institutions to showcase success locally and nationally in the U.S. to build support for their involvement. 

Implementing the partnership(s):

  • Establish clear understanding of roles and communication protocols to ensure that on-the-ground (field) project implementers and U.S. (home) country partners remain in-synch. This also requires that HEIs are prepared for changes to their scopes of work as the situation on the ground evolves. Unlike in a typical university research project, many expectations and parameters can change in implementation.  For example, as their partnership has evolved, Nassau Community College has come to focus on accreditation, English language, and student services in initial phases of its partnership with Al-Kafaat Foundation, rather than initially programmed areas of interest that related to business and entrepreneurship.  This reflects real-time adaptation that is likely to be called for in forming and growing effective partnerships.
  • Support and educate U.S. (“home”) country HEI administrations in dealing with new environments and missions. This includes promoting an understanding of the chain-of-command in development project implementation and bridging U.S. and developing country administrative and financial procedures, the later of which may lack the formal structures with which universities are comfortable interfacing (e.g. formally calculated indirect cost rates). A related challenge is HEIs learning how their models and practices can be adapted to radically different contexts. HEIs and implementers need to work together to develop applied knowledge of host country bureaucracies (i.e., how long it takes to get things done and the overall tolerance for experimentation).
  • Local (host country) employers are the “third pillar” of HEI partnerships. Employers are the keys to bringing about problem-based pedagogy, and problem-based and reality-based learning, by exposing local faculty to new approaches that will improve labor market outcomes for students, providing curriculum input, internships and practice-based learning, and mentorship or other forms of real-world contact with professionals.  The HED program provides several examples of business advisory boards. For example, in Jordan the solar energy industry is very eager to engage to influence the development of high-quality training, while the supported colleges also want these skills.  In other situations, industry may not have clear, accepted, or well-defined ways of providing input into HEI administrative decisions, and may not trust that administrators will heed that input. Engagement of local employers is an area in which U.S. colleges and universities can contribute effective methods and practices if they can correctly identify and address local constraints on collaboration.


  • Build sustainability into the design of the project through institution-to-institution partnerships and a team approach. There are many benefits to strong personal relationships and commitments between researchers and faculty members. Nonetheless, partnerships driven by personalities alone are more vulnerable to turnover, changes in leadership, and shifting interests. True institution-to-institution or system-to-system partnerships, particularly those that institutionalize a sufficient budget to support real (continuous) presence become part of the institutions’ budget priorities and sufficient resources to support real (continuous, frequent, or ongoing) physical presence.
  • Work towards developing multi-level relationships that are embedded throughout the institutions.  Partnerships that incorporate a diversity of activities within the context of the institutional partnership relationship—such as research, student services, pedagogical innovation, faculty development, curriculum renewal, and best administrative and management practices—will tend to be more stable and sustainable.  A good place to start is by placing exchange students in host institutions as well as placing graduates as faculty or administrators.  These create an ongoing physical presence upon which more diverse partnerships can be built “organically” as new areas of collaboration emerge.
  • Cement relationships by developing sustainable ongoing research programs. At the university level, partnerships can be cemented by jointly pursuing extramural (external) research funding for areas of mutual interest.  Multi-year research funding can cement relationships at both the faculty and institutional levels.