Strategic alliances at international level are a prerequisite for Laurea University of Applied Sciences to provide competence-based education and to produce skilled workforce for the national and global labour markets. Without international cooperation, there would be no high-quality, competitive, attractive university of applied sciences that creates new knowledge. At Laurea, internationalisation is seen as a key factor in supporting the quality, impact and renewal of all operations. Therefore, internationalisation is an essential part of Laurea’s everyday research, development, innovation, teaching and business management, as well as network and ecosystem cooperation. In this article, international strategic alliances are examined from the perspective of Laurea’s top management. Such alliances generally refer to deep-rooted cooperation that is based on mutual trust between partners and the joint benefits they gain from the collaboration.

Throughout the 2000s, the aim in Finland has been to increase the international competitiveness and attractiveness of higher education institutions and to strengthen them through international strategic partnerships (MoEC 2017, MoEC 2022). International competitiveness refers to the financial and academic capacity of higher education institutions to succeed in the global education market in the areas of teaching and research, as well as in influencing society. ”Success on a global level requires strong strategic leadership from an individual university. On top of that efficiency, innovation and continuous renewal as well as reliable partners are needed,” says Dr Jouni Koski, President of Laurea.

Active participation in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the European Research Area (ERA) serves Laurea’s long-term strategic goals. For Laurea, internationalisation is above all a means to develop teaching and research and to strengthen the quality of operations through cross-border networking and the opportunities it offers. Internationalisation has many qualitative effects, such as the expansion of Laurea’s knowledge capital, the dissemination and utilisation of knowledge and innovations, an increase in academic quality and impact as well as in global know-how. Laurea’s long-term cooperation and development work in international strategic alliances and networks serves its students and staff, but also benefits its stakeholders in the Uusimaa region and at the same time increases the internationalisation and understanding of diversity in the entire Finnish society (Ylikoski et al. 2018).

According to President Koski, Laurea is known in Finland and around the world as an internationally networked university of applied sciences that combines learning with working life. Laurea’s ambition is to be a student-centred international higher education institution integrated into working life and regional development (Laurea 2019). Laurea’s differentiation from other higher education institutions is based above all on its strong and recognised brand, consistent target and stakeholder communication, and key attraction factors (Ylikoski et al. 2018). High-quality foreign-language education, future-oriented applied research, development and innovation activities that involve stakeholders, good infrastructure and functional services, as well as international connections and networks are Laurea’s means of attracting students, researchers and partners from different countries and continents.

Laurea’s top management’s view of international strategic alliances
Although Laurea has long been involved in international strategic alliances, a joint reflection is needed on what exactly is meant by these alliances and what is expected of them. Therefore, in the academic year 2022-2023, Laurea’s top management has discussed what are the characteristics and starting points of an international strategic alliance and how the concept of an alliance is understood.

Dr Mari Vuolteenaho, Vice President for RDI at Laurea, says that the starting point for strategic alliances promoting international cooperation comes directly from the legislation. The law states that the Finnish universities of applied sciences are expected to cooperate with foreign higher education institutions (Finlex 2014). Moreover, Laurea’s strategy for 2030 (Laurea 2019) outlines that the university’s strategic partnership network at regional, national and international level will be expanded and deepened resolutely. The partnerships strengthen Laurea’s areas of expertise and increase the impact of all its research, development and business operations.

According to Vuolteenaho, international strategic alliances strengthen Laurea’s position now and in the future. In particular, they support Laurea in the direction and achievement of its important goals. As a rule, Laurea’s strategic alliances arise either as a result of conscious choice or as a result of previous successful cooperation. ”As European and global cooperation with higher education institutions is expected to increase in Laurea’s operations in the next few years, it also means an increase in the importance of international strategic partnerships in Laurea,” Vuolteenaho says.

The idea of an international strategic alliance in the higher education sector is to bring strong institutions from different countries together to promote goals that are considered of mutual interest and of common importance. Multilateral partnerships are based on agreements between higher education institutions in which they pool their resources and competences to achieve jointly defined objectives. Each participating university will retain its legal autonomy as part of an international strategic alliance.

Vuolteenaho points out that with its strategic alliances Laurea aims to ensure that it succeeds in getting something that it would not have if it acted alone. From the point of view of any alliance as a whole the aim is of course to ensure the success of all parties. It requires confidential, open and effective working relationships. ”International strategic alliances are always about long-term relationships between institutions, not about network contacts of an individual Laurea expert,” Vuolteenaho says.

”Although much emphasis is placed on the strategic nature of international alliances, it is good to remember that a large part of joint development takes place at the operational level. Operational activities mean the implementation of a strategy, usually done in cooperation by experts from higher education institutions in different countries. The strategic importance is emphasised more as the will of the organisation and in the speeches of the university management towards the public,” says Dr Tiina Päivärinne, Laurea’s Director of International Affairs. Moreover, she raises the question of how to assess that a potential international partner demonstrates sufficient quality, reliability and flexibility in its operations, and is not too bureaucratic and unwieldy to work with. Different work cultures between countries and institutions can lead to slowdowns and inefficiencies in international cooperation.

Dr Katri Ojasalo, Vice President for Teaching at Laurea, emphasises that there are many factors that weigh heavily in the selection of international strategic partners. For her, it is highly essential that the partners know each other well and master their basic tasks well. This is a prerequisite for partners working together to improve their ability to create added value for their own customers and stakeholders. “In my opinion, students are at the heart of all activities and development. Universities exist for them. Thus, the benefits of international cooperation must be channeled directly to them. Better pedagogy, more interesting courses, more diverse international exchange opportunities, well-functioning services and much more. This can only be achieved if the staff members’ competences are constantly updated and developed,” Ojasalo continues.

Finally, Vuolteenaho stresses that the most crucial task for an international strategic alliance is to set a clear goal and to make a strong commitment to it. Partners must be able to articulate what they want from the future cooperation and to define what is their specific role in achieving the common goal. When every partner looks in the same direction and dedicates themselves to long-term cooperation, it is possible to achieve outstanding results together by openly sharing expertise, resources, knowledge, experiences, networks and ideas. ”The rules of the game – meaning the responsibilities and obligations of each party – must of course be defined by agreement,” Vuolteenaho sums up.

PIONEER is one of Laurea’s international strategic alliances
”At Laurea, we aim at a stronger integration into European higher education cooperation. Thus, we are part of the PIONEER alliance of ten European higher education institutions. In the winter of 2023, a PIONEER project proposal for funding has been submitted to the European Commission. We expect a decision on the matter by the end of May. If the funding is granted, Laurea and the nine other PIONEER partners will then receive this so-called European University status,” says President Koski and adds: ”Of course, we will continue to intensify our cooperation with PIONEER partners in other ways as well.”

The establishment of the PIONEER alliance is a development following the political decisions taken on the EU level some years ago. In 2017, the European Council gave a mandate to the European Commission to strengthen strategic partnerships in higher education across the EU (European Council 2017). This initiative, known as European Universities, is also part of the European Universities Strategy (European Commission 2022). The strategy aims to establish 60 European Higher Education Alliances by mid-2024, bringing together more than 500 universities and universities of applied sciences from all EU countries, as well as Iceland, Norway, Serbia and Turkey. The purpose of these alliances is to promote cooperation between higher education institutions, to strengthen their international competitiveness and attractiveness, to increase the quality and scope of higher education in Europe and to offer students the opportunity to take degrees by combining studies from higher education institutions in different EU countries.

If the PIONEER alliance receives funding, the higher education institutions involved will start an unprecedented institutional and structural cooperation at the end of 2023. In a nutshell, PIONEER aims to create a common long-term research and innovation-based education strategy for all participating higher education institutions, as well as a European higher education campus that offers students, doctoral candidates and staff opportunities for studies and professional development. In addition, multidisciplinary development work will be carried out on issues related to sustainable urban development. Regional ecosystems and cooperation with them are a key part of the activities of the PIONEER universities.

Unique and sustainable alliances are vital for Laurea
Laurea’s success in today’s changing global operating environment calls for strong partnerships across borders. Without them, Laurea, as a higher education institution, will not be able to reach its full potential. Well-functioning institutional partnerships that complement one’s own activities and goals are considered the lifeblood of future higher education at Laurea. Particular attention will be drawn to the fact that international strategic alliances are unique, dynamic and time- and change-resistant. Together with reliable international partners Laurea can positively influence the direction of European and global higher education.

Author information: Mika Launikari (PhD, M.Sc. Econ.) was Laurea’s key expert involved in preparing the PIONEER project proposal with the other European partners, and in close cooperation with Laurea’s top management and selected in-house experts in the winter of 2022-2023.

This article relies on the author’s discussions about international strategic alliances with Laurea’s President Dr Jouni Koski, Vice Presidents Dr Mari Vuolteenaho and Dr Katri Ojasalo, and Director of International Affairs, Dr Tiina Päivärinne, at the end of 2022.


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