How is success viewed and what are the key success factors in transnational higher education partnerships?
: A Coventry University Group case study

  • Peter Harrison

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Business Administration


For many United Kingdom (UK) Universities, Transnational Higher Education (TNHE) has become a key part of their strategies and portfolio of income generation activities. Under a TNHE model, partnerships are developed between education providers to deliver approved degrees for overseas students in educational institutions within their home country. Historically these partnerships have been developed to satisfy differing, but complementary, organisational needs. These needs are mainly focussed on importing institutions building domestic capacity, and exporting countries seeking income generation. The wider benefits of partnering with an institution from another country with regard to staff and student experiences have also been highlighted as key reasons for continued engagement in this type of activity.

The Coventry University Group (CUG) has been formally engaged in TNHE for over 20 years and has a number of longstanding partnerships that, through mutual agreement, could be described as successful. Increasing TNHE partnerships and student numbers form a key part of the CUG International Strategy; understanding how successful partnerships have been established and maintained is therefore important for future practice. This study focusses on participants’ views from five Partners, identified using agreed indicators of successful partnerships, and staff from CUG involved in TNHE delivery. The research utilises a single case study approach and uses semi-structured interviews to build views of success from multiple standpoints. Additionally, the important role of the main link person between CUG and the Partners (Link Tutor) was evaluated using a questionnaire with Link Tutors from CUG, the findings then being combined and contrasted with semi-structured interviews data. The research set out to understand if initial views of success and success factors were common between the Partners and if their views aligned with CUG. A theoretical framework of possible success factors was created from the literature using the “domains” identified by Waterval et al. (2015) which they considered could influence the success and failure of cross-border curriculum partnerships. The possible success factors outlined in the domains by Waterval et al. (2015) were further developed through adding success factors identified from key literature sources relating to TNHE success.

The main findings support a number of the dominant success narratives from existing studies and other industry contexts, such as Partners having similar values, complementary rationales for partnering and having trusting relationships. However, the emphasis and practical aspects reported around the importance of relationships, trust and trust building far outweighed other success factors identified from the previous literature. Very importantly, for development of future practice, these identified success factors mainly featured in the domain of “soft and hard project management” (Waterval et al., 2015) and less in the other domains of the theoretical framework. Therefore, the discussion explored further what trust means through the lens of the levels within a partnership, from the UK as a country, UK Higher Education, CUG as an organisation, through to the people who work on TNHE within CUG. Categorising the recommendations for change via the adoption of McKinsey’s 7S Model (Channon, 2015), the research makes important recommendations for changes to approach, policy and practice for CUG and transnational partnerships in general. The 25 associated recommendations highlight how trust can be built and maintained within TNHE partnerships through the cycle of approval, delivery and growth. A new conceptual model is developed to visualise the importance of trust, and how trust and distrust can impact on the bandwidth of trust (Rousseau et al., 1998) required for successful partnerships. This conceptual model can act as a visual stimulant for those involved in partnership working to identify trust building and trust diminishing activities and approaches.

The recommendations include the practical aspects of taking a more trust-based rather than risk-based approach, which is supported by the changes in guidance from the UK overseeing quality body, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), during the 6 years of this study. Specific recommendations include using the language of partnership in activities including development of policy and procedures, having Partner representation at key approval events and enhanced staff training to build and maintain the bandwidth of trust between Partners. The evaluation of the Link Tutor role and its fitness for purpose indicated that overall the role is achieving its aim, however recommendations are made around additional support required and ensuring continuity. The discussion, findings and recommendations, although specific to the CUG Link Tutor role, inform the current broader debate around the importance of these linking roles with TNHE. Included in the critical reflection is the current status of impact from the recommendations within the organisation and ongoing plans for dissemination and change.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University

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