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Confucian wisdom

Partnerships work, but only if chosen carefully, agree Dame Nicola Brewer and Katharine Carruthers.

Words Lucy Jolin Photograph Alun Callender


There’s only one way to find fair solutions to global challenges, says Dr Dame Nicola Brewer, Vice-Provost (International), and that’s by working in partnership. “No single institution, however brilliant, can find those solutions on its own, and that’s why global partnerships are so important.”

Take the fight against spina bifida, for example, one of the world’s most common birth defects. In partnership with colleagues at Peking University (PKU), a team of UCL professors led by Professor Nick Greene, is focusing on a dataset of 9,000 women in China who have previously suffered a spina bifida pregnancy. They are monitoring the impact of giving them a particular drug to reduce the risk of another spina bifida pregnancy, and are proposing a £5m study of up to 9,000 women in China to confirm initial findings that a vitamin common in fruit, vegetables, meat and nuts could prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. “Think of the positive global impact if this trial produces a positive result,” says Brewer, who has responsibility for UCL’s Global Engagement Strategy.

In conversation with Katharine Carruthers, Institute of Education Confucius Institute (IOE CI) Director and Pro-Vice-Provost for East Asia, it’s clear the two agree on the approach. Partnerships change perspective, says Carruthers. “I started learning Chinese when China was a completely closed society. Watching the country change to where we are now over the last 40 years really enhances the case for engagement. Things may be done differently in different countries, but if there is not multilateral engagement, then we are nowhere.”

Global interconnectedness used to be a concept that the west took for granted adds Brewer: NATO, the EU, the WTO. But not any more. “In the current climate, you have to work at interconnectedness. And you have to defend it. The higher education sector, with its emphasis on how education can change the world for the better, needs to be part of that. And that’s why global partnerships are so important.”

But to be successful, partnerships need clarity. “Partnerships is a word that is bandied around really loosely,” says Brewer. “To avoid that, at UCL we talk about partnerships of equivalence, based on mutual trust and respect and commitment to work together. And we identify how the benefits flow in both directions.”

The IOE CI itself is a perfect example of how these partnerships work, Carruthers points out. A project that supports the teaching and learning of Chinese as a foreign language in the UK, it is also run in partnership with PKU, as well as Peking University High School, and supported by the Office of Chinese Language Council International, Hanban. 

Along with a small team of specialists in London, the IOE CI has a network of 45 Confucius Classrooms across England: schools that have Chinese firmly embedded in their curriculum and that give advice and support to other schools in their region. “You’re talking about mutual equivalence,” Carruthers says. “That’s what we do. It’s very much about co-creating solutions together.”

Successful partnerships like this one make it look easy, but choosing the right partner is an art in itself. “We get between one and four institutional-level approaches a month,” says Brewer. “We can’t invest the time and effort in developing all of those, so we have to choose. We are looking in particular for evidence of three things: first, that our partner has a global reputation and a commitment to research excellence; second, that the partner has a shared or compatible mission and ethos (when they are only partly shared, we need clear evidence that there is space to promote respect for equality and human rights within the relationship); and third, that we have a shared or compatible approach towards global engagement. Not everybody does. Some universities are still absolutely focused on overseas campuses: we’re moving away from those.”

Brewer draws on her 30 years’ experience as a diplomat, she says, when identifying successful partnerships. “One of the challenges is to identify where there is a complementarity of interests so you can both work together, even though you may have some differences as well. You are looking to develop the personal qualities of trust, which means both sides look for what, in diplomacy, you would call a win-win situation.”

And UCL’s potentially world-changing ‘deep strategic partnerships’ won’t put a stop to other collaborations, points out Carruthers. Having a deep strategic partnership with PKU, for example, doesn’t preclude lots and lots of collaborations: at the individual academic level, the faculty level or with institutions elsewhere in China.”

We need partnerships more than ever before, says Brewer, and in ways we may not yet fully appreciate. “Professor Henrietta Moore, the director for our Institute for Global Prosperity, says that we need new ideas about what it means to be a team player in an interdependent world. Our global engagement strategy and our partnership strategy are part of that. And I often use the well-known quote from MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in 2016 – ‘We have more in common than that which divides us.’ That perhaps sounds idealistic, but it’s fundamental to the sustainable solutions we all need.”

Carruthers agrees. “I guess that’s much more broadly what partnerships are about: getting better solutions as a result of working together, but also enhancing different perspectives of the world.”

Discover more about the Institute of Education Confucius Institute here. Find more about UCL’s Global Engagement Strategy here.

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Portico Issue 5. 2018/19