Understanding responsible & sustainable partnerships in education: Insights from GINTL’s public launch


Author Apoorwa Hooda, Elizabeth Eta

TopicsBlog posts & articles

Universities worldwide are increasingly promoting measures for internationalisation, increasing opportunities for students and faculty members to collaborate, travel, exchange and co-create knowledge with their international counterparts. As internationalisation becomes the norm, there is also a need for universities to step back and reflect on the purpose and value of promoting these international partnerships. Internationalization strategies of most universities in Finland emphasize “ethical”, “responsible” and “sustainable” global partnerships, but what do the terms really mean in practice for higher education institutions?

The online launch event of the Global Innovation Network in Teaching and Learning (GINTL), on 30 March 2022, hosted by the coordinating universities in Finland—the University of Helsinki and the University of Jyväskylä—was a step towards building a common understanding of “sustainable partnerships” in education. The Launch served as a platform for representatives from Finland as well as GINTL partner regions to share their perspectives in the form of a keynote and panel discussion. Apart from renowned scholars from Finland, India, China and South Africa, the Launch invited contributions from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, vice-rectors, and deans of education faculties of the coordinating universities. Here we present insights into the discussions that addressed some core questions around the purpose of internationalisation for higher education institutions (HEIs), existing issues in internationalisation, and mechanisms to overcome these challenges through understanding the what, how, and why of sustainable partnerships. We also talk about the implications of this co-created understanding on the future of GINTL activities.

Why internationalise?

Why do higher education institutions across the world need international partnerships? As we heard from the keynote (by Prof. Ahmad Bawa, CEO of the South African Universities Network) as well as the panel discussion, bringing together people from different parts of the world to create a global common, leading to building of a global citizenry, is a powerful tool to address local as well as global challenges that the world is increasingly facing in the 21st century. However, the specific needs could differ across countries and regions as well as different institutions. Elina Lehtomäki, a professor of global education at the University of Oulu, explained the value of global partnerships in education for Finnish universities. “In Finland, we want to increase our understanding of education globally. It’s a policy aim. We can’t do that by staying at home; we need trusted partners in international networks.” In the context of the African continent, Prof. Damtew Teferra from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, added that “Africa needs them for capacity building and academic staff development for the new generation.”

In summary, higher education institutions benefit immensely from partnering with other institutions globally, as such partnerships are a way for institutions to stretch expertise across various knowledge systems, enhance mutual learning, building capacity of personnel, contextualising knowledge within a discipline from successful practices in other countries and building a long-term cooperation; apart from the more visible benefits such as better international rankings and keeping up with emerging institutions that might be leaders in the future.

Challenges and issues with internationalisation

Everything desirable comes with obstacles, and so does internationalisation for higher education institutions! So, what issues do existing international partnerships increasingly face and what are the challenges that limit partners to make the most out of these partnerships?  

For the African higher education institutions, lack of funding is the biggest challenge, Prof. Teferra expressed. A lack of funding also means lack of cutting-edge resources for research, as 70–75% of research money is generated in the global north. Lack of internationalisation policies and guidelines and limited exposure to an international language (50 percent of Africa does not speak English!) lead to low global rankings for African universities, which in turn makes them less sought-after partners for universities internationally. Another critical issue that came out of the discussion is the issue of ‘brain drain’, indicating the permanent emigration of students, academics, and skilled workers from one jurisdiction to another, causing loss of talent and human resources in which sending countries had put considerable educational investment, although there have been efforts in the recent years to minimize brain drain and increase ‘brain circulation’ and ‘brain gain’.

A strong post-colonial sentiment, for example in India, has also made internationalisation for higher education institutions challenging, as there is limited trust and investment from universities, Prof. Mousumi Mukherjee, associate professor and deputy director at the International Institute of Higher Education, O.P. Jindal Global University in India, explained.

The panel agreed that the issue of sustainability is globally relevant, as most existing partnerships are bilateral partnerships with a maximum duration of three to four years. Even before relationships really progress, the outcomes of the partnerships need to be reported. The speakers, hence, strongly suggest long-term engagements leading to real capacity building and a sustainable cooperation.

What, why and how of sustainable and responsible partnerships

It is generally accepted that partnerships need to be sustainable and responsible for the creation of greater value and long-term impact. However, knowing why partnerships need to be sustainable and responsible is one thing and developing a shared and in-depth understanding of the essential characteristics of such partnerships is another. We discuss some of these characteristics below:

Ethical Engagement

This requires all partners to openly communicate, reflect and question their practices and work. When partnerships are responsible and ethical, those involved are encouraged and support each other to continuously question throughout the duration of the partnership ‘what is it that we do, what are the reasons, what are the justifications for our collaboration, how do we improve and advance the co-creation of knowledge and the recognition of different kinds of knowledges?’ highlighted Prof. Elina Lehtomäki. This implies considering partners’ need to recognise, acknowledge, and respect the different kinds of knowledges emanating from different contexts of the partners involved.

Equity, Equality, and Fairness

Aresponsible partnership encapsulates equity, equity, and fairness. As much as equality is important—i.e., treating partners the same—sustainable and responsible partnerships recognise that different partners have different needs which are considered and negotiated throughout the life cycle of the projects to ensure fairness in a way that the benefits of such partnerships are locally impactful. Prof. Boucun Liu, the Director of National Centre for International Education at Beijing Normal University, defines responsible partnerships as “reliable, equal and negotiated, working together to achieve cooperative goals and overcome difficulties”.

Teamwork and Team Building

Working together to set and achieve agreed upon project goals and overcoming challenges together are essential characteristics of sustainable and responsible partnerships. This requires efforts from each team member in building trust, reliability, solidarity, emotional energy, agency, and ethical praxis. If you would like to know more about these characteristics, you can refer to “Research collaboration: Relationships and praxis” by Stepehn M. Richie, recommends Dr. Mukherjee from India.

Leadership of Partnership

The sustainability of a partnership is also dependent on the leaders and how those involved in the partnership respond to leadership. Hence, it is important to not only question the raison d’être of the partnership but to also question who leads, why and how? In the best-case scenario, sustainable partnerships require shared leadership to decentralise power such that partners see themselves as equals, not just in project implementation, but also in decision making processes of the projects.

What are the building blocks for sustainable and responsible partnerships in education?

Partnerships do not become sustainable and responsible on their own. It requires a recognition that in the process of international academic partnership building, the sustainability and responsibility of such partnership should be a goal in itself. Hence, building them requires a conscious and deliberate effort of all parties involved to commit to it. The panellists suggest the following as possible building blocks to sustainable and responsible partnerships:

Selection of partners

Any successful collaboration starts with the partners involved. Hence, time and effort must be invested in carefully selecting the right partners during the project formation phase. This requires asking critical questions such as “What is our criteria for selection? Do we only select universities that are top-ranked? At the same time, we need to ask, who do we partner with? Who represents the future to us?”, remarked Professor Lehtomäki.

Identification of common interests

Project partners should be able to identify and articulate their interests and needs in international collaboration projects which allows them to commit themselves to realising the set goals and benefit from them.

Duration of projects

Long-term engagement is key to building sustainable and responsible partnerships as opposed to short-term engagements of two to four years, which is often the case. Long-term engagements help to create a greater impact. As explained by Prof. Damtew Teferra, “if we are to advance sustainability in partnerships, we need to think long term” and invest time in selecting trustworthy partners.

Understanding GINTL

So, what is GINTL really about and why do we need a network like GINTL in the current global scenario? To understand GINTL, it is important to start from the premise that ‘GINTL is a network in the making’ as emphasised by the speakers. Established in 2021, GINTL brings together 20 higher education institutions, including both universities and universities of applied sciences in Finland to work together with their counterparts in Africa, China and India on this global pilot from 2021–2024 to fulfil their global responsibility in education. The extended period of 2021–2024 allows the collaborating partners to engage in dialogue, mutual learning and establish shared priorities and modalities for collaboration in GINTL network building.

“Shared priorities are important, but it takes time to formulate them” reiterated Hanna Snellman, Vice Rector and professor of European ethnology, at the University of Helsinki. This implies that “as a network in the making, GINTL seeks to learn how their counterparts in India, China and the African continent would like to collaborate with Finnish higher education institutions”, emphasised Marja-Leena Laakso, Vice Rector and professor of education at the University of Jyväskylä. This process requires “people and institutions committing themselves and practically working together, … being connected to one another towards common goals, and creating mutually beneficial partnerships characterised by interconnected relations”, added Sai Väyrynen, Director of the GINTL Africa and China Network.

What makes a network like GINTL relevant in the current global scenario is the fact that it is not just about international collaboration, but international collaboration in education, as Prof. Ahmad Bawa pointed out in his keynote. Global challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, food security and wars are a reminder for the need “to focus on building these large international collaborations” because “if we are to solve global challenges, then that solution should be both at the global and the local levels”, which is a platform that GINTL provides. GINTL’s role is, therefore, accepted as critical in “providing a basis of creating a global common of scholars and scholarship relating to education”, and bringing into conversations “the deep-seated knowledges that exist in our communities” Prof. Bawa added.

The establishment of a shared understanding and co-creating priorities and modalities for collaboration among GINTL partners enables GINTL to fully emerge and develop a platform for:

  • International collaboration in education
  • Reimagining higher education collaboration in teaching and learning
  • Co-creating applied research and development initiatives
  • Testing research-based solutions for shared challenges in teaching and learning
  • Facilitating joint online courses and/or physical mobility of staff and students interested in global issues in education
  • Bringing together scholars from around the world into deep conversations that are mutually beneficial.
  • Enabling the co-creation of education that leads to the building of a global citizenry

Way ahead for GINTL

A key question for all GINTL coordinators, members and partners is: “what else could GINTL be?” Since collaboration is the hallmark of GINTL activities, the following questions, posed by Prof. Laakso, are also worth reflecting on: “What should such collaboration look like in the future? What are more sustainable and mutually beneficial ways of collaborating?”
Ms. Jaana Palojärvi, Director for International Relations at the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland, emphasised the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships for GINTL’s future plans—i.e., making use of knowledge systems that are deep seated in our communities and can be really beneficial for our children and young people as we attempt to move towards global citizenry. The deans of the faculties of education at the coordinating universities concluded that we need more understanding of the structural, cultural, technological, societal, global educational changes that are currently happening to co-create something that is acceptable, useful, and making an impact locally as well as globally.

Together, as participants in GINTL, we can open possibilities for processes of critical reflection on knowledge produced from research in relation to internationalisation or colonialism, to questions related to South and North. We must strive to build long-term trust-based collaborations that can profoundly change our ideas and practices in teaching, learning and collaboration.


Elizabeth Eta

Postdoctoral Researcher


Apoorwa Hooda

University Teacher


Find out more …

This event happened on 30 March 2022. Re-watch GINTL’s Launch Event on GINTL’s YouTube channel and find out about optinions of the panelists on key characteristics of sustainable and responsible North-South partnerships as well as the central roles of higher education institutions in GINTL’s blog.

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