Competition and Cooperation (Harvard International Review)

In Harvard International Review, Papers by Weber

The Need for a Dual Approach by Luc Weber

Global Education, Vol. 30 (3) – Fall 2008 Issue

Imagine for an instant that you are the president or rector of a research university in North America or Western Europe. You are well aware that the world of today is increasingly global and competitive, as well as driven by knowledge. In particular, you are observing that the countries that are now emerging so rapidly, in Asia and in other regions of the world, have realized a crucial point: in order to prosper, it is not enough to build on huge masses of cheap—but relatively unqualified—labor; they need to develop the knowledge economy by way of large investments in education, higher education, and research. You begin to understand that these countries are becoming competitors for talent, as they attract back or keep their best citizens. You are also aware that they will be “producing” many more well trained specialists than the “old world,” which has been dominating the knowledge production and transfer scene for centuries. You foresee, therefore, that the emergence of these new economic and political powers will increasingly threaten the relative standard of living of the developed world.

As university president or rector, you are particularly sensitive to the fact that research universities, as well as specific research institutions, are not spared the profound transformations that are taking place in the world. In fact, you are even contributing significantly to these changes according to the mission of your institution. Your institution is also challenged by the changes affecting the higher education and research system itself, in particular the increasing competition for talented teachers and students at national and international levels, the increasing cost of research and of training graduate and doctoral students, and the over-regulation and under-funding of higher education and research by governments that makes it difficult for institutions to make strategic changes. In addition, if you are the rector of a European university, you are confronted with the Bologna Process, the vast pan-European undertaking aiming at creating a European Higher Education Area of 47 countries. To comply with the decisions of the European education ministers and your national authorities, by 2010 you have to restructure all the study programs according to a harmonized model in order to facilitate the mobility of students and staff and to increase your attractiveness to non-European students.
You believe that the most challenging question for a university president or rector is to envisage the best strategy to promote the development of your institution or even to secure its existence. But should your institution deal with the competition alone or should it collaborate? Obviously, competition and cooperation are permanent characteristics of humankind.
Nevertheless, the increasing competitive climate might lead you to believe that competition is reducing the degree of cooperation because cooperation would be less desirable or more difficult. Even if there is no standardized measure of the degree of competition and cooperation, we can observe that on the contrary, these two phenomena are positively linked through some invisible system of action and reaction.
This observation is far from new: the creation of a world military alliance against Nazi Germany in World War II or of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as counterpower to USSR after the same war are among the most striking examples of responses to military competition and threats by cooperation. Another salient example is the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 (now the European Union) to prevent the risk of a new war between European countries and to promote various collaboration between member countries. Cooperation is also an important strategy in the business world to reduce the pressure of competition. It can take various forms, for example, research collaborating at the pre-competitive level, collaborating at the level of product distribution, absorbing a competitor to gain market shares and reduce the pressure of competition, or contracting secret agreements to avoid costly price wars.
Universities, and in particular research universities, as well as national university systems, are confronted with similar challenges. In order to play the role expected from them, they should not only respond to the competition which is becoming increasingly global but should also cooperate more intensively to face the challenges of competition. If competition and cooperation are both part of a global strategy to adapt to the changing world and, better, to contribute to this change, there is nevertheless a systemic difference between them. Competition is the normal state of affairs that every individual, enterprise (private or public), and nation has faced since the memory of mankind, whereas cooperation requires a voluntary decision to join forces with a partner or partners in order to improve the impact and efficiency of a specific activity. As we shall demonstrate later on, the necessity for an organization to collaborate whenever it is adequate and possible to lessen the pressures of competition and to increase their capacity to compete originates from two facts: first, it is extremely difficult to escape from competition, and second, competition threatens the existence of any organization that does not adapt to its changing environment.