Moving from bilateral cooperation (involving one or more partners) to operating as a formal network or consortium can be a significant step but it is often worth taking if longer-term collaboration is the ultimate goal. Networks or consortia provide a means of cooperation that can bring forth significant benefits to partnerships that have grown larger, that have the same (or similar) approaches to ECVET and mobility, and which have a common model of collaboration and cooperation.
Networks are voluntary communities which change over time, creating new ideas and practices. They need to be able to target their work appropriately, abandoning practices that are past their sell-by-date and which no longer function well. To be effective, networks must break existing moulds, fostering creative thinking and making use of new opportunities.
General Benefits of Networks and Consortia
In studies related to internationally-oriented networks in the VET-sector, respondents have identified a number of benefits associated with networking, both for the members themselves and for their organisations and institutions, namely that such networks:
- increase the international mobility of students and staff, partly because it is easier to organise growing numbers of mobilities through networks.
- help to make student mobility a part of regular training policy and practice, rather than an exception.
- support an exchange of expertise and the sharing of experience, increasing the overall success rate of student mobility - in particular, smaller education and training institutions are known to benefit from participating in cooperative networks.
- improve the pooling of resources, allowing for higher credibility when contacting foreign institutions and workplaces and as part of funding application processes.
- increase the number of established and accessible international contacts, which would otherwise take much more time to create - with individual member organisations making their international partners available to the whole network.
- support those working in international affairs and, for example, contribute to the induction of new personnel, in addition to providing for increased contact between education/training and industry - as those engaged in international affairs often work alone or in very small teams, within their own organisation, the peer support provided by participating in larger networks can be especially valuable.
Benefits in the Area of ECVET
Over the years, the benefits of networking in the area of ECVET have been confirmed by a number of pilot testing and development projects and include:
- the option to replace multiple partnership agreements - usually signed individually with different partners - with a common Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that all network, or consortium, partners can sign.
- the ease of updating an agreement, or MoU, when changes in certification or curricula occur - far easier than changing or updating multiple agreements.
- the lasting nature of an agreement, or MoU, with network or consortia agreements often outliving single mobility or development projects - this is clearly beneficial as not only does it reduce the administrative burden on participating institutions and competent authorities, it also serves to increase quality in mobility, with ECVET policies, procedures and practices carried from one project or programme to the next.
- the opportunity to build trust through longer-term cooperation within networks - or consortia - particularly important for ECVET since trust is at the core of many ECVET principles.
Setting up a Network
Setting up a mobility network with a focus on ECVET involves detailed preparation and strategic thinking and should normally build on existing partner relations, with potential members having similar views and expectations in terms of core network functions and possessing the required personal and interpersonal skills to work together in a dynamic fashion.
The initial network start-up phase is crucial for its future performance, since it will help partners to choose the paths that they will take and the roles that they will play. Core considerations and areas for initial decision-making include:
- network goals, objectives and strategies.
- network identity.
- network participation and the build-up of the partnership.
- working methods, approaches and tools that will be used by network partners.
- network coordination and leadership.
It should be noted that the workload of the coordinator, in large networks in particular, is considerable. Appointing a coordinator is arguably one of the most important decisions for a network, after having defined common network goals and objectives.
A good network coordinator possesses a balanced combination of many characteristics: in addition to striving to achieve network objectives, they are socially adept, focused and know how to be creative whilst remaining open to the often-differing views of network members. The network coordinator has to win the trust of all members, usually with different expectations and experiences, and potentially also having different cultural backgrounds. At the same time, the network coordinator must be rigorous and well-organised as they are often also accountable for funding and for management-related activities.