Are ‘equitable research partnerships’ compatible with UK university administrative processes?

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According to the British Academy’s ‘Humanities and Social Sciences Tackling Global Challenges’ call, ‘researchers from the Global South [must] be involved as equal partners’ in funded work. Such concerns also resonate with broader calls to ‘decolonise’ the university. But what do they mean in terms of project set up and administration between universities (here Stirling and Yerevan State University (YSU)) that work so differently? How can ‘best [administrative] practice’ reflect equality between institutions in such different circumstances?

A quick, not entirely linear timeline: we applied to the Global Challenges scheme in July 2020. In Autumn 2020, we get the grant!…… But Armenia is now at war. Since our application, tens of thousands of refugees have arrived from Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh; Syrian-Armenians have lived through (another) war, this time alongside their Republic of Armenia-born counterparts; while Indian immigration has stalled. By November, Armenia has lost the war; feels betrayed by Russia, its traditional ally; abandoned by the major powers (as during the 1915 genocide); and ever more threatened by Azerbaijan’s Turkey-backed military power. The political and economic hope associated with the 2018 Armenian ‘Velvet Revolution’ has dissipated. By early 2021, flights to Russia have resumed, young people are leaving again… and we must set up our project.

Guided by our very helpful (and busy) Research Office, we ask YSU to fill in a ‘due diligence’ questionnaire and develop a ‘collaboration agreement’. Most of the focus is on data protection and public liability insurance. ‘What if someone falls over a box?’ A good question in a UK context, but I start to feel a bit queasy. I try not to imagine the eyebrows raised in a country that has just been at war. Maybe someone will find the question funny? (Maybe someone who hasn’t lost a relative in Artsakh.)

My major mistake is money though. I read the financial provisions. They seem fine. But it seems that I didn’t read the appendix closely enough. We (the project team) think that YSU’s part of the money will just be transferred there. We think wrong. Things just ‘do not work that way’, and YSU ‘should not have signed’ the agreement if they thought they did. In the meantime, the UK government cuts ODA research funding. Ours is unaffected, thankfully, but what are YSU supposed to think? Somehow, we doubt they will have much confidence in the UK’s financial credibility right now (or welcome any lessons on how to manage funds from us.)

Our overworked finance department is of course just doing their job to protect us and the university. But we are now in a position where YSU is paying charges (ie losing money) on an account in euros -set up at our request- which remains empty. Normal practice, it seems, equates to asking our collaborators in a lower-middle income country, who do not have basic salaries that include time for research, to work for free. After which they need to get others in administrative roles to work beyond their normal contracts to invoice our finance departments to get paid.

Why didn’t I know this? Small-talk while developing relationships with possible research partners (also known as chatting to very nice people you want to work with), this is not. But why didn’t I know to ask about the basics?  ‘How can we work together in way that doesn’t make you worse off?’ might have been a starter. A colleague later tells me that eventually he did manage to get payments to individual accounts on a previous project. Eyebrows were raised, hair pulled out (via very British emails) but something was worked out. It seems that other practices are possible; ones that recognise that normal practice is based on assumptions that may not apply elsewhere. Such approaches need to be normalised if UK universities are to work alongside international partners in a truly equitable way.

We appeal upwards and a compromise is worked out – an advance quarterly payment can be made, but the financial responsibility for this advance will lie with our Faculty, not the university. A huge sigh of relief. Perhaps we will maintain our good relations with YSU (and the finance department too)?

I return to filling out risk assessment forms. YSU doesn’t have an ethics committee in the same way as UK universities do, so our form is needed even for work done in Armenia by Armenian colleagues. There’s a special form for covid. I know that our Armenian colleagues cannot focus on covid risk assessment to the same extent as we can in the wake of the recent war and the need to support refugees. The form continues: how will we mitigate the risks posed by ‘political tension’?  ‘We will not go there/return if war threatens Yerevan’ I write,….adding, cringing, that this option is ‘unavailable to our Armenian colleagues’. An ‘equitable research partnership’ remains the aim, but will be hard to realise.