Constructing Sustainable International Partnerships in Higher Education: Linking the Strategic and Contingent Through Interpersonal Relationships in the United Kingdom and China

Ma, J., & Montgomery, C. (2019). Constructing Sustainable International Partnerships in Higher Education: Linking the Strategic and Contingent Through Interpersonal Relationships in the United Kingdom and China. Journal of Studies in International Education

Jie Ma

Dr Jie Ma, Xiamen University, China

This paper attempts to highlight interpersonal relationships as the missing link in constituting sustainable international partnerships amid an increasingly strategic landscape of higher education internationalization. Drawing upon 31 semi-structured interviews with different administrative and disciplinary staff in two universities in the UK and China, the paper presents a shared construction of sustainable international partnerships in higher education across both contexts that it is those inter-personal human relationships built upon shared interests and ethical qualities that make partnerships sustainable. The reason that interpersonal relationships are perceived to be a strong basis for interweaving sustainable partnerships is because there is an inherent research interest for individual academics to engage in their disciplinary networks and a built-in mutual understanding, respect and trust within those human relationships. Instead of strategic planning, those human relationships, usually developed after a chance encounter, through contingent activities, such as attending conferences, studying or visiting abroad, are based on shared interests (especially shared research interests) between individual academics. However, because people together with their interpersonal relationships might leave the institution and if that person is the only nexus of the partnership between the universities, then partnerships tend to unravel. In this regard, partnerships built upon interpersonal relationships are embedded enough in the network of individuals but not enough in the institutions. In this sense, instead of individuality, sustainable partnership building is about team playing, which suggests the significance of multiple engagement in the established interpersonal relationships. To make such team playing or multiple engagement happen, the institution has to work hard at building trust, thus regaining belief and engagement from individual academics on the ground. This is where strategic planning should come in, with the aim of embedding interpersonal relationships not just in individual networks but also institutional structures. Hence, an approach to linking the strategic and contingent through interpersonal relationships is thus proposed in order to build sustainable international partnerships in higher education.

However, this research showed that there are subtle differences in how the strategic and contingent is linked through interpersonal relationships between the two institutions in the UK and China. In England, sustainable partnership seems constructed amid the distrust in the institution by participants as a response with frustration, cynicism and doubt about the institutional approach to partnerships driven by income generation, arguing that it is human relationships between ‘people’ that make partnerships sustainable. Thus in the English context partnerships were embedded in the individual networks rather than in the institutional structure, possibly making them more fragile. In China, meanwhile, sustainable partnership appears constructed in the context with a heavy reliance on the particular roles of ‘people’ – ‘senior’ academics – working in either home or partner universities in developing and sustaining interpersonal relationships and thus partnerships. Albeit the differences, this shared understanding of sustainable partnerships across two universities in both countries is argued to go beyond any international and institutional differences between the UK and China, thus creating wider possibilities of constructing sustainable partnerships through interpersonal relationships in the international higher education.

Author Bio

Dr. Jie Ma is a postdoctoral researcher at Xiamen University. She has a PhD in Internationalization of Higher Education and has research interests in the field of comparative education. Her doctoral research was on constructions of sustainable international partnerships in higher education, which includes perspectives from the UK and China. The current research project that she is engaging in is on the traditions and transitions of undergraduate teaching in the UK higher education. She can be contacted via email at

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