Cross-Sector Partnerships: Fueling Innovation and Overcoming Challenges in Online Education

Cross sector partnerships are driving innovation, extending global reach and delivering transformative outcomes for online students, but there are strategic and operational challenges to overcome. OEB23 Speaker Lynn Evans, Strategic Director of the University of Liverpool’s online education portfolio examines the ways in which cross sector partnerships are transforming online higher education and the key considerations for universities seeking to scale their online portfolios through these collaborations. 

As demand for online education continues to grow, many universities are seeking to launch or expand their digital portfolios. This is both to meet the increasing needs and expectations of on-campus students for digitally enriched learning experiences, and to make their awards accessible to a wider audience through the creation of remote study options.  

But the surge in demand for online education, has also attracted an influx of investment and new types of competitor; from new universities, to ed-tech startups, to corporate giants, who are disrupting the higher education landscape with innovative delivery models, emphasising flexibility, cost effectiveness and skills development. In particular, those that are blurring the boundaries of degree and non-degree learning, for example through microcredentials, are making significant gains in enrolment (McKinsey, July 2022).

Online education offers can be delivered and accessed from anywhere in the world, giving students unprecedented control over where and when they study, and driving ever higher expectations of quality and service in their choice of provider.

The ability to shape learning experiences around the demands and needs of students is crucial in the online context. But, for universities, it can be challenging to break out of established models of delivery, as academic processes, pedagogy, and student support services are typically structured around face-to-face delivery on campus. 

Whilst Universities across the world temporarily adapted their on-campus programmes for remote delivery through COVID, the design and delivery of high-quality online education at scale and for a dedicated audience is an altogether different proposition. Online pedagogy and student engagement are key considerations, along with a raft of enablers such as faculty expertise, internal capacity, technical infrastructure and the ability to deliver the full suite of educational and other student services remotely and across time-zones.

The opportunity to augment teaching and research strengths by integrating the complementary capabilities of an out-of-sector partner can therefore be a compelling proposition whether for those seeking to pilot their first online programmes or for more established providers seeking to scale up their online education activity.

Online Education Management companies (OEMs) are a growing segment of education service providers, whose business is to help educators deliver their programmes online. These include unbundled services such as, programme design, hosting, marketing and recruitment and virtual work placement opportunities, which can be purchased according to the institution’s needs. At the other end of the spectrum there are full-service models in which OEMs offer a full suite of services as part of a collaborative arrangement.  

OEMs can offer the market insights, expertise and agility to help universities craft high quality learning experiences for students and deliver them at scale.  For universities who are new to online, OEMs offer transformative potential to help to launch new online programmes, placing limited demand on internal capacity and resources, and without the need to operate multiple service delivery models.  For those who are further developed but struggling to scale, OEMs can provide solid market expertise and add flexible capacity to grow portfolio and recruitment.

OEMs are typically well capitalised to withstand lengthy initial investment periods of market and portfolio development, in order to yield results over time. Because of this, OEMs are likely to favour longer-term institutional agreements, especially towards the full-service end of the spectrum, increasing the risks associated with poor strategic-fit.  

Successful cross sector partnerships require a considerable investment from both partners, of money, time and resources and there is an opportunity cost to universities if effort is channelled into a single arrangement that does not deliver sustainable value beyond the life of that agreement.

The following considerations can inform universities in their evaluation of the potential merits of OEM partnership models for online portfolio development…

1. Be clear about what you, and your partner, each want from the arrangement

In entering into any partnership arrangement, it is vitally important that each organisation clearly understands its own and each other’s motivations for participation.

OEMs with established partners will already have a model of value creation and know the inputs and outputs that will be required, in order to achieve the necessary return on investment. For universities, the desired value may be less tangible and include internationalisation, diversification of the student body, the ability to reach underserved communities, increase impact and enhance reputation.  

2. Ensure that there is a good fit of organisational ethics and values

In cross sector partnerships, the different ways of thinking and working culture can easily become a source of tension (Vogel, 2022).

Universities are typically value-led organisations and are likely to have invested in developing their reputations over many years. If values are not well aligned across the partnership, then this may give rise to conflict and reputational risks connected to the activity. Your partner will be representing you in the market, with agents, and perhaps in day to day service engagements with your students and so it is important to be confident that this activity will be reputationally enhancing. This starts with alignment of ethics and values.

3. Establish a common purpose and shared vision of success

The activity of the partnership will flow from each partner’s underlying motivations and vision of success. Therefore, it is important to establish an achievable shared vision of success that will guide decision making and is well aligned to the strategy and motivations of each organisation.

It is important to understand up front, the specific complementary capabilities that each partner will contribute to the achievement of this vision, how these responsibilities will be distributed and the milestones and performance indicators that you will use to navigate towards your goals.

4. Ensure that there is internal buy-in

As they mature, strong partnerships are not curated through a managing team, but are layered through each organisation relying on many, many effective cross-partnership relationships and the development of trust and confidence over time.

It is important to plan in advance how the wider community of university stakeholders will engage with the new partnership. What are their hopes, ambitions, concerns or reservations. How will you engage them and mobilise their support?

5. Aim for enduring value 

All partnerships naturally evolve and change course over time, particularly when they need to respond to very dynamic and fast-moving external conditions.

It is therefore important to understand at the outset, the wider impact and sustainable value that you are seeking to create for your institution and for the communities that you serve. Consider how this will be articulated and provided for within your contractual arrangements and in your practice.  For example, are you aiming to develop new internal capabilities or organisational learning through this activity and, if so, how will the new partnership support that.

For the development of online education, cross sector partnerships offer a unique opportunity for growth, innovation, diversification and enhancement, but in order to succeed they require careful planning and management, alignment of vision and values, and the mobilisation of a breadth of effort and support from across the institution.  Above all, universities should think about how this activity links to its wider priorities and activities, for example connectivity with research and integration with on-campus learning, in order to deliver the greatest total value to the institution and its stakeholders. 


Diaz-Infante, N., Lazar, M., Ram, S., & Ray, A. (July 2022), Demand for Online Education is Growing – Are Providers Ready?, McKinsey & Company

Vogel, R., Göbel, M., Grewe-Salfeld, M., Herbert, B., Matsuo, Y., Weber, C. (2022), Cross-sector Partnerships: Mapping the Field and Advancing an Institutional Approach, International Journal of Management Reviews Volume 24, Issue 3 p. 394-414 , Wiley Online Library

Marschollek, O. & Beck, R. (2012). Alignment of divergent organizational cultures in IT public–private partnerships. Business & Information Systems Engineering4(3), pp. 153–162.

Written for OEB Global 2023 by Lynn Evans. Lynn will be speaking about the transformative potential of cross sector partnerships in online higher education, at OEB23 on November 23 at 14:30.

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