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Achieving Success in International Educational Partnerships

Should your school establish (or continue) study-abroad programs? A three-time business school dean shares insights on six questions to consider first.

international education partnerships


Ira Weiss, PhD

Professor, Department of Management, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Poole College of Management, NC State University

PhD, with Distinction, in Computer Information Systems with Accounting Minor; MS in Accounting and Information Systems; BS in Accounting and Economics


Twenty-five years ago, more than 70,000 US university students spent at least six weeks in study-abroad programs. Two years ago, that number had increased to well over 300,000 students. Most of the earlier programs focused on language and cultural learning. The significant increases in student numbers compelled universities to better integrate these foreign experiences into degree programs, ensuring both progress toward degrees and learning outcomes.

Overseas educational programs associated with business and management majors have seen heir numbers increase significantly during this year period. In secondary education institutions in the US, an almost 600% increase has been observed (comparing 1993–94 with 2015–16).

Reasons vary, but developments involving the Internet, the European Union, the NAFTA program, and the opening of China all appear to have had a significant impact. The globalization of business has compelled schools to turn out graduates able to master the intricacies of global relationships. Schools within the European Union, with trade and labor barriers removed, were first movers in this direction. US schools trailed through the early 1990s but since have quickly caught up.

US business firms, once satisfied to base their growth on developing a domestic market, were suddenly compelled to extend their business horizons to a global scale as local markets were becoming saturated, impacting growth. US business schools, in recognizing this shift in firm strategies, were compelled to change and to enhance their teaching programs in order to prepare students to function successfully in global markets.

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Early iterations of business-focused study abroad

The exchange and study-abroad programs that emerged during this period varied in length, focus, and delivery. Most importantly, they focused on teaching business disciplines from the viewpoint of the host countries and thus preparing students to understand country-centric norms, ethics, and business cultures.

To accommodate this change in focus, US schools could no longer scatter their students to universities around the world but instead needed to develop institutional partnerships where curriculums could be coordinated to ensure learning outcomes.

Modern models and current challenges

Fastforward to 2017. There have been a number of global business educational partnerships that have emerged. Some of the more widely recognized multi-school partnerships include OneMBA (5 schools), International Partnership of Business Schools, or IPBS (11 schools); CEMS (21 schools); and China Europe International Business School, or CEIBS (3 schools). But far more prevalent are traditional exchange programs and bilateral arrangements or MOUs (memorandums of understanding) between two schools that tightly integrate curriculum, have numerous students moving between the schools, facilitate progress toward degree, and sometimes promote dual/double degrees.

“Establishing and ensuring that these partnerships work are not trivial tasks. The human resources needed to logistically coordinate curriculum, travel, visas, housing, etc., are considerable.”

— Ira Weiss, PhD

Establishing and ensuring that these partnerships work are not trivial tasks. The human resources needed to logistically coordinate curriculum, travel, visas, housing, etc., are considerable. So as more schools are faced with declining budgets, faculty shortages, and demographic changes, and given global tensions in many regions around the world, schools are questioning the continuance of their global programs, the establishment of new ones, or—for those not currently engaged—even the entrance into these markets.

6 Best Practices for Engaging in International Partnerships

Having been the Business School Dean at three institutions, each with significant international partnerships, I believe the lessons learned in developing and managing international partnerships can be invaluable to answer or address the above issues. Below, I offer some insights, not as a roadmap but as questions or issues that each school should address prior to engaging in international programs and partnerships—as well as issues that likely will arise as the partnerships/programs mature and evolve.

Before establishing or continuing partnerships

Below are six questions that a school should address before establishing or continuing international partnerships:

  1. Why is the school creating an international partner?
  2. Is the school’s faculty on board and engaged?
  3. Are the students prepared for an international experience?
  4. Has the school established adequate resources to institutionalize these programs?
  5. Are there lifelines set up for the students?
  6. Have internship issues been addressed?

Below I provide perspectives on each of these questions/issues.

1. Why does the school want to establish/continue the program?

The most important question a school must answer is why it wants to establish/continue global programs. Is it for the student experience? Is it to internationalize the faculty? Is it to gain competitive advantage or compete with peer institutions? Is it to expand the research agenda of the school? Is it to attract international students into programs?

Though all of these objectives are worthy and important, if the answer is not a student-focused one, the institution should give serious thought about moving forward.

Internationalizing the faculty or expanding their research horizons may be by-products of the global programs but should not be the primary focus. Faculty self-selects as to their research focus and whether they personally have any real interest in engaging in international markets. Programs established for marketing purposes may lack internal academic champions who typically provide program guidance and facilitate program success. Therefore, if the school has established a student-focused academic mission for these programs/partnerships, and if they are committed with people and resources to execute, then moving forward can be successful.

2. Is the faculty on board?

The second question/issue is the extent to which the faculty supports the initiative under consideration. The cost of these partnerships is extremely high. If the faculty see these programs as not directly benefiting the school or themselves, they will opt for better uses of funds.

Many of these international partnerships also support faculty exchanges. Though these opportunities initially sound exciting to faculty, few US faculty are able or willing to take off the requisite time (typically a semester or a year).

Those faculty who have been able in the past to take advantage of the opportunity may find that their appetite for going again, especially to the same venue/partner, is substantially reduced. So, convincing the faculty to support and to sign on to these initiatives can be a major challenge.

3. Are the students prepared?

Next the school must inquire as to both the motivation and preparation for students going abroad. If they are going for a year or longer, they are almost equivalent to corporate expats. Most companies that send employees abroad provide significant training about the culture, etc., so they can acclimate somewhat easily to the new environment. Students who have had limited experience in traveling abroad can find cultural differences and language issues somewhat overwhelming.

Another issue that students face is that the delivery methods in the classroom of the partner school might be very different. Most US business schools create classroom experiences that are highly interactive, team based, and discussion oriented. Many schools in Europe, Asia, and South American still deliver in a lecture format, and grading is totally based on a final exam. Students need to be forewarned about and prepared to deal with these academic differences.

4. Are there adequate resources?

True international partnerships require that schools have established resources on both sides to support the programs. Often global partnerships start with individual faculty members from both schools having a relationship, which facilitates bringing the schools together. Unfortunately, sometimes the ongoing success of these partnerships rely on these faculty.

It is essential that any school moving in this direction take appropriate steps to institutionalize the program as quickly as possible, as faculty members are both mobile and often their interests change. It is critical for leadership from both institutions to advocate for and support the programs and bring additional faculty and support services into the mix early in the relationship.

Equally as important is creating an escape clause that allows either institution to terminate the program if rapid declines occur.

5. Are there student lifelines?

Establishing a communications protocol to engage with students while abroad is essential. Over the last 10–15 years, US institutions—understanding demographic and cultural shifts—have established significant student services that cater to and assist students in adapting to university life. These services include advisory services, counseling services, health services, special needs accommodations, and more. US students are often catered to in ways that do not exist at their global partners’ institutions. Therefore, it is often up to the home US institution to determine whether a student will be successful at an international partner. This is a difficult issue to operationalize, as most schools have GPA and possibly language requirements for going abroad, but few, if any, other requirements. Therefore, setting up robust communication channels between the advisors at the home US institution and their study-abroad students, especially within the first one to two months, is critical so students understand and believe they have a lifeline and a support system.

6. Have internship issues been addressed?

Students going abroad, especially for a year or more, have the opportunity to gain great global and cultural experiences. But spending a year abroad can significantly hamper their opportunities to do internships at home. Most students will spend their third year abroad, and that is the critical year for applying and interviewing for internships (which typically occur during spring semester).

As more and more US companies are requiring a business student to have had at least one meaningful internship to even be considered as a candidate for a permanent position, this potentially puts the student in a problematic and disadvantaged situation. Often students and their parents are not aware of this conundrum. It is imperative that this information is shared so there are no surprises when students return home and challenges occur initially in the internship search and potentially in the post-graduation job search.

Also, an increasing number of these partnerships allow students to do internships in the host country during their studies. For a business student, this is a great opportunity to truly understand business practices in another culture.

International students coming to US institutions are impressed and surprised at how highly paid student internships are in the US, and that eases their financial burden. Equally, but inversely, US students are surprised and often dismayed that their international internships might be unpaid or only provide subsistence wages.


It is unquestionable that the benefits students gain by spending time abroad can significantly enrich their learning experiences. In many cases these are career- and life-changing events.

Ensuring that the student experience is a positive one often means schools must go further than having exchange programs with numerous institutions but instead create strategic global partnerships where students may spend a summer, semester, or longer abroad—and where educational curriculums and cultural experiences are highly coordinated with the home institution to enhance learning and accomplish the home school’s objectives for their global programs.

“Business schools today must have an international/global agenda, but such an agenda must be holistic and well integrated into the school’s curriculum, culture, budget, and mission. Focusing on [key] issues as schools are considering their global programs should assist in this task.”

— Ira Weiss, PhD

Outlined above are six key issues that should be considered by US business school deans and university administrators before entering or continuing international programs and global partnership agreements. The above lessons learned and shared are based on personal experiences and observations made, and hopefully they can be a valuable guide for making sure strategic international partnerships are established with all the ingredients for success.

Business schools today must have an international/global agenda, but such an agenda must be holistic and well integrated into the school’s curriculum, culture, budget, and mission. Focusing on the above issues as schools are considering their global programs should assist in this task.