Research Database

Partnerships in higher education

Type of Publication: NCSEHE publication

Lead Organisation: NCSEHE

Year Published: 2014

Lead Researcher: Sue Trinidad


Professor Sue Trinidad and Ms Mary Kelly

The business case and the social justice case for partnerships

The work that universities do to widen the participation of people from equity backgrounds involves activities in the pre-tertiary domain with both school-age and adult people – to encourage interest in tertiary study and offer practical assistance with access; and activities with enrolled tertiary students – to encourage a sense of belonging and improve success and retention.

This work requires the combined and coordinated efforts of a number of institutions and organisational units, because:

  • The root problems are related to poverty, racism and disadvantage, the effects of which are seen in every aspect of the lives of those affected, and which are complex and not easily overcome. Small scale, narrowly-focused, or short-term efforts are unlikely to break the cycle of disadvantage or the associated pattern of educational engagement.
  • In the pre-tertiary domain, those affected by disadvantage, and who may be uninterested in tertiary study, need a scaffolded age-appropriate series of interactions which gradually build awareness, aspiration and confidence. Large numbers of school-age and adult learners have this need – it is the sheer scale of this task, not just its complexity, which suggests that partnership-based operations are needed.
  • In the pre-tertiary domain, university is not a strong presence, nor a great influencer, in the lives of the people it wants to reach. These school students and adults have no formal relationship with universities, which are thus poorly placed to drive change or transform opinions. Universities are reliant on the major influencers of family, community, and school, and must partner with them for impact.
  • With enrolled tertiary students, the university can directly exercise influence. Ensuring that students from equity backgrounds can achieve comparable rates of success, retention and completion is a major focus. Ideally these students should experience a seamless, targeted set of supports and inclusive experiences inside and outside the curriculum, that build confidence and a sense of belonging. Internal partnerships between academic and non-academic organisational units across the university are required for this to happen.

Recent Developments

Universities have always undertaken partnership activities, but the incentives available under Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) funding since 2010 have seen the emergence of larger-scale, more collaborative partnerships in the area of widening participation. The 31 case studies in this publication illustrate the range and richness of this work.

  • The types of partnerships presented include:
  • Intra-university partnerships – typically required for retention work, but also for some outreach work.
  • Inter-institutional (or inter-university) partnerships – those involving more than one university, typically around outreach work.
  • Inter-sectoral – involving the Vocational Education and Training (VET) or schooling sector.
  • Social or community partnerships – involving government and non-government agencies and community groups/organisations, or targeting community engagement.

Partnerships can have multiple characteristics and cover more than one category.

What makes partnerships work

A partnership can be said to work if it achieves its objectives, be that improving aspiration or improving retention, for example. The government might measure success by the extent to which the partnership contributes to national policy priorities and outcomes.

This publication focuses in part on a related dimension, which is the nature of partnership-working itself. What characteristics, features, principles and practices hold partnerships together and contribute to successful outcomes? What do practitioners and policy-makers need to know about partnership-working so they can design and fund those with the best chance of success?

The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) has published a literature review, as well as the examples of current practice presented here, to explore the answers to these important questions.

What characteristics, features, principles and practices hold partnerships together and contribute to successful outcomes?

Literature review: themes from partnership research

The consensus is that evaluation of partnerships involved with equity goals for disadvantaged populations must involve social justice evaluation frameworks. The goals of partnerships (including community coalitions/community engagement) are numerous and include many social justice actions: advocacy, outreach, education, prevention, service delivery, capacity building, empowerment, community action, and systems change.

The most popular type of partnership found is cross-sector social partnerships, or ‘projects formed explicitly to address social issues and causes that actively engage the partners on an ongoing basis’. A cross-sectoral approach means that organisations from business, government, education, and civil society are involved.

An analysis of interview data from ten Australian social partnerships revealed the five dimensions of partnership work comprised:

  • cultural scoping
  • connection-building
  • capacity-building
  • collective work
  • trust-building.

Five sets of principles were also identified as being effective in guiding both initial and ongoing partnership work. These are building and maintaining:

  • shared purposes and goals
  • relations with partners
  • capacities for partnership work
  • partnership governance and leadership
  • trust and trustworthiness.

These principles are enacted around the five dimensions of partnership work and manifest in a set of practices aligned to them. This work is best realised through the work processes within social partnerships, supported and informed by external sponsors and the adoption of particular variations and emphases within social partnerships over time.

Despite the different dimensions partnerships display in terms of inclusivity, focus, depth of engagement and scale, research on collaborations in education (and in other contexts) have sought to produce typologies of effective partnership working. Commonly identified features from studies in the UK and Australia include:

  • trust between partners
  • shared and clearly-defined aims and goals
  • effective leadership
  • clear organisational structure and role definition
  • valuing each member
  • efficient communication
  • transparent distributions of funds
  • high levels of enthusiasm and commitment from each partner.

However, working collaboratively poses challenges and risks for partners. Identified features of effective partnerships are often observations of a static point in time, and underplay the challenges faced in developing and sustaining collaborations. Partnerships are dynamic and continuously evolve as partners leave, new partners join, personnel change, the policy context shifts and priorities change.


It is this rich combination of theory and practice which will help us to understand and enact partnerships better, so that the goal of improving participation is achieved.

Read the full report here.

Accessible PDF

Posted 5 December 2014