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Abstract

While educational theory has often seen collaboration and competition as incompatible, there is increasing evidence that collaboration persists in educational markets characterized by competition. In this paper, we use the theoretical lens of ‘coopetition’, a relationship between organizations involving competition in some segments and cooperation in others, to study this phenomenon and look at the applicability of this concept to education. A case study approach was used to study collaboration and competition in a network of eleven 6th-form colleges, which teach 16–18-year-old students in England. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with managers in each college. Documentary evidence was collected such as websites, brochures, and publicity materials. Results show that the collaborative network was perceived positively. The concept of coopetition was clearly applicable to this network, with collaboration and competition equally informing college strategies and policies, and many aspects of coopetition theory applying to the network. However, challenges to future collaboration were identified.
Coopetition in education: Collaborating
in a competitive environment
Daniel Muijs Nataliya Rumyantseva
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013
Abstract While educational theory has often seen collaboration and competition
as incompatible, there is increasing evidence that collaboration persists in educa-
tional markets characterized by competition. In this paper, we use the theoretical
lens of ‘coopetition’, a relationship between organizations involving competition in
some segments and cooperation in others, to study this phenomenon and look at the
applicability of this concept to education. A case study approach was used to study
collaboration and competition in a network of eleven 6th-form colleges, which teach
16–18-year-old students in England. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken
with managers in each college. Documentary evidence was collected such as
websites, brochures, and publicity materials. Results show that the collaborative
network was perceived positively. The concept of coopetition was clearly applicable
to this network, with collaboration and competition equally informing college
strategies and policies, and many aspects of coopetition theory applying to the
network. However, challenges to future collaboration were identified.
Keywords Networking Collaboration Competition Coopetition
Introduction
One of the main developments in education over recent years has been the growth
and official encouragement of a range of collaborations and networks between
education providers such as schools and colleges, which has seen the emergence of
both government-sponsored initiatives such as school networks in the Netherlands
and Flanders and Federations of schools in England (Muijs et al. 2010) and bottom-
D. Muijs (&)N. Rumyantseva
Southampton Education School, University of Southampton, Highfield Campus,
Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK
e-mail: d.muijs@soton.ac.uk
123
J Educ Change
DOI 10.1007/s10833-013-9223-8
up initiatives with schools and colleges forming their own networks in a range of
contexts and countries [e.g., the USA (Kahne et al. 2001; Damore et al. 2011),
Germany (Berkemeyer et al. 2008), and the UK (Ainscow et al. 2006)]. A range of
advantages have been put forward for collaboration between educational organi-
zations in recent years, and there is a growing though still limited body of evidence
that collaborative arrangements and networks can have a positive impact on
organizational functioning, and even on student outcomes. Chapman et al. (2010,
2012) used quasi-experimental methods to look at the impact of Federations of
schools and found that pupil performance improved in schools 1–2 years following
Federation and remained higher than in matched comparator schools. A systematic
review by CUREE (2005) reported some evidence of better attainment and positive
impacts on teacher professional development, while a range of qualitative studies
report similarly positive findings (Muijs et al. 2011). Some of the benefits of
collaboration include greater professional learning as partner schools broaden their
horizons and discover practices and policies that may be transferable, a greater
capacity to fill structural gaps in organizational capacity, and greater resilience to
external change (Muijs et al. 2011).
Collaboration is, however, not always successful. Research has shown that a
number of factors have to be in place for it to work, such as trust between
collaborators, benefits for each partner as well as for the network, and a shared
vision (Muijs et al. 2011). A number of factors are typically cited as being inimical
to collaboration. One such is considered to be competition, usually seen as
oppositional to or at least as a major obstacle to collaboration between educational
institutions (Hargreaves 1996). Chapman and Allen (2005), for example, state that
lack of competition between schools is a facilitator of effective networking between
schools. If competition is strong, then the trust that is a key to effective networking
will not be present. This perception has meant that many schools choose to network
with partners from outside their own catchment area which are not competing with
them for students, notwithstanding the practical difficulties this may entail. The
issue of trust comes to the fore here again, in that where trust between local schools
is strong, it has been found possible to develop local partnerships and links. This
also appears easier where networking is voluntary, as preexisting relations of trust
tend to be stronger (Muijs et al. 2011).
If this is the case, then this would be particularly problematic as alongside
collaboration increasing competition, often through mechanisms of parental
choice, has been a mainstay of educational policy in many countries such as the
USA with the introduction of charter schools and voucher programs (Chakrabarti
2011); England, where the introduction of free schools and the expansion of the
academies program are only the latest examples of longstanding government
commitment to expanding choice (Ball 1994); Sweden, where free schools and
vouchers were introduced in the 1990s (Erixon Arreman and Holm 2011); and
Hong Kong which recently introduced vouchers for Kindergarten. As for
collaboration, a range of reasons are given as to why competition could improve
educational quality and effectiveness. Economic theory states that competition
leads to more effective allocation of resources, which in educational terms implies
that the fact that parents can choose the best school for their child will lead to a
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better match between child and school, which in turn will lead to an improvement
in overall outcomes. The second key argument for competition revolves around the
issue of market discipline, which will ensure that competing schools will have to
raise standards and improve in order to continue to attract parents and therefore
guarantee their own survival. For this to work, school finances must be closely
linked to parental choice, which typically results in a system of per-pupil funding
(Gibbons et al. 2008).
Evidence on the impact of competition is mixed. Sandstrom and Bergstrom
(2005) used a quasi-experimental econometric model to assess the impact of school
vouchers and private sector competition on public sector schools in Sweden, finding
that school results in public schools improved as a result of competition. Clark
(2005), in a quasi-experimental study of schools ‘opted out’ of local government
control in a reform by a previous Conservative government in England, found that
while school autonomy was strongly related to improved student outcomes, the
impact of greater competition between schools in a location was limited (though
positive overall). Dronkers and Robert (2008), using a comparison of European
schools from the PISA dataset, found that, controlling for pupil intake character-
istics, private government-dependent schools outperformed public schools, while
public schools in turn outperformed private independent schools. Of course,
increased competition in education has been controversial and been criticized on the
basis of both effectiveness and equity criteria (e.g. Ball 1994). There is clear
evidence that educational actors respond to competition. A study of the establish-
ment of a voluntary inter-district choice program in Michigan showed that districts
were significantly influenced by the behaviors of neighboring districts, with districts
across the project becoming more willing to enroll out-of-district students (Rincke
2005). Similarly, Ghosh (2009) found that an initiative fostering school choice in
Massachusetts led school district officials to strategically respond to the input
choices of nearby districts, by adjusting expenditure, for example. Evidence on the
impact of competition on increasing inequity is inconclusive, with some studies
showing limited impacts (Clark 2005), while others suggest that competition favors
middle-class parents (Ball 2003) and that competition in high stakes accountability
systems leads to game playing with negative equity consequences, such as
reclassifying students into special education categories that exempt them from
national tests (Chakrabarti 2011). Overall, evidence, though mixed, appears to
suggest that competition between educational organizations leads to modest
improvements in pupil attainment, but also to modest increases in socioeconomic
and ethnic segregation (Wiborg 2010).
What is in any case clear is that many governments have brought into the
arguments in favor of competition and acted accordingly, while in some cases,
simultaneously promoting forms of collaboration, notwithstanding the widely held
views that the two are inherently contradictory (see, for example, the simultaneous
support for Academies and Federations in UK education policy, Chapman et al.
2012). And it is clear that many networks and collaborative arrangements exist and
are maintained even in a competitive environment (Ainscow et al. 2006).
An explanation for this phenomenon may be found by looking at research done
outside of education which points to the coexistence of competition and
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collaboration and where competing organizations have been found to forge effective
networks. This phenomenon has been termed coopetition, defined as a relationship
between two companies involving competition in some segments and cooperation in
others (Brandenburger and Nalebuff 1996). Networks of this type appear to be most
common in environments with high levels of demand uncertainty, but reasonably
stable supplies of staffing (Jones et al. 1997). These coopetitive networks tend to be
relatively short term and focused around specific projects, but similar networks may
exist in the education sector, as, perceptions notwithstanding, a lot of collaboration
in education does take place in competitive environments, as the network studied in
this paper will demonstrate.
Coopetition
The coopetition concept emerged as a result of growing doubts about the sole
emphasis on competition as the driver of innovation in firms. Brandenburger and
Nalebuff (1996) used game theoretic concepts to challenge this view and found that
firms could in fact develop significant competitive advantage and foster innovation
through a strategy that combined competition and collaboration. The term
coopetition was first coined by Ray Noorda, CEO of Novell, describing it as
‘cooperation in creating value, competition in dividing it up’ (Bruno 1993). While
traditional competition for the market share is still present, cooperation with
suppliers, customers, and firms producing complementary or related products can in
this view lead to expansion of the market and the formation of new business
relationships and innovation. Coopetition is widespread across business sectors, but
is particularly prevalent in the IT sector, where strategic alliances to develop new
products and markets are common (Dagnino and Padula 2002). Key elements of
coopetition are as follows:
1. Firms cooperate to grow the market and compete to divide the spoils. These
activities do not necessary occur in chronological order, but may instead
operate simultaneously, as growing markets for the product or service will
remain a continuing concern, as will the division of the rewards of the market
(Brandenburger and Nalebuff 1996).
2. Firms have a range of relationships with one another and with other
organizations. These can be described as customers, suppliers, competitors,
and complementors. The role of complementors is of particular importance in
coopetition theory. These are organizations that can help grow markets for the
firm by appearing to customers and suppliers to complement its offering.
Examples are the relationship between hardware and software manufacturers in
IT (more powerful hardware allows more sophisticated software to be
developed which in turn makes the hardware more attractive to consumers),
but complementors can also be firms providing the same product, in that, for
example, the existence of multiple buyers may make suppliers more willing to
invest in new products or may make the market more attractive to customers
(Brandenburger and Nalebuff 1996).
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3. The proximity of an activity to its customer appears to bear relevance for the
form of interaction among suppliers. When the activity is far from the customer,
for example, research and development, competitors tend to cooperate, and
when it is close to the customer, for example, marketing, they adopt a
competitive stance. (Bengtsson and Kock 2000).
4. Bengtsson and Kock’s (2000) research also shows that the division between
competition and cooperation can be separated between different business units,
even when the activity is close to the customer. Competitors cooperate in some
markets or product areas, whereas they compete in others. For example, when a
dairy company that firmly holds a certain market share does not produce a full
range of dairy products (yogurt and juice), it stocks and sells the products of its
competitor in order to ensure that their customers have access to the full range
of products. It strengthens the company’s relationship with its customers and its
counterpart gains access to the otherwise inaccessible share of the market.
Game theory states that markets have five key elements such as
Players (actors in the game, for example, competitors),
Added value (what the player can bring to the game, for example, the factors
that make a product stand out over competitors in the consumer market),
Rules (the rules that guide the game, for example, the framework of negotiation
between buyers and sellers),
Tactics (how the perceptions of other actors are shaped) and
Scope (the relationship between different games, for example, different markets
in which organizations operate or different services they offer).
Collaboration can, in this view, be used to create a competitive advantage in the
market, through intervention in each of these areas, for example, by bringing in new
players as collaborators, by increasing added value through bringing in comple-
mentors making products more attractive to the market, by collaborating on
developing new rules in the market, or through creating a perception of strong
alliances that may scare off potential new entrants (Lecocq and Yami 2002;
Brandenburger and Nalebuff 1996).
Reasons for cooperation include sharing risks and costs, as well as fostering
innovation, defined as the generation and exploitation of new products or services.
Coopetition is said to foster synergistic effects through sharing research and
development costs and pooling complementary skills and can help companies to
plug structural gaps in their knowledge (Pittaway et al. 2004). The importance of
knowledge flows between different firms and organizations for innovation has been
demonstrated in a number of studies, and collaborating as well as competing with
others is likely to increase this flow of information and help firms to access
complementary knowledge and skills. Pooling of resources and economies of scale
can themselves help firms to innovate and survive (Mention 2010).
There is a growing body of research on coopetition in the business world
generally favorable to its effectiveness (Dagnino and Padula 2002). A recent
systematic review concluded that networking between firms and suppliers and
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customers and intermediaries such as professional and trade associations led to more
innovation and greater productivity across sectors and for both established firms and
entrepreneurs (Pittaway et al. 2004). However, in a study of financial firms, Mention
(2010) found that collaboration and networking with competitors led to imitation
rather than innovation, though this in itself may benefit firms as they learn from
others’ best practice. Networking can at times have negative consequences, in that
existing networks may be an impediment to innovation and market renewal. In
many cases, cooperative strategies in competitive environments in business are
encouraged through initiatives by local or national governments, seen as necessary
in some cases to overcome a lack of willingness to cooperate with competitors. The
results of these initiatives are disputed, however, as there are extant examples of
both success and failure of such initiatives. Where successful, they appear to lead
enhanced competitiveness and turnover (Rosenfeld 1996).
Studies of coopetition in education are very limited in number and generally
confined to Higher Education. Bennett and Kottasz (2011) found that university
business schools that compete fiercely for students nevertheless cooperate, especially
in overseas and international markets where they may engage in through joint
marketing efforts, access assets owned by the others like libraries, and learn about new
approaches and innovations. Typically, when engaged in collaboration, they will
attempt to differentiate themselves from collaborators through specialization in
specific areas. Universities also engage in coopetitive behavior through competing in
some markets and collaborating in others (van der Wende 2007). This limited research
base in education is likely linked to differences in the nature and extent of competition
in the education sector. Traditionally, while schools have always aimed to improve
their reputation and performance in part comparatively to others in their region, this
competition has generally not been existential in nature. However, in education
systems which have, through policy, become marketized, underpinned elements such
school choice, per-pupil funding, the encouragement of the setting up of new
providers, and published performance data to aid choice, this competition has become
far more existential to schools which thus have to compete in ways more similar to
businesses than was the case in these education systems previously.
Unsurprisingly in view of the inherent tensions in the model, research points to a
number of conditions that need to be in place for coopetition to be effective. The
first condition is reciprocity. Each partner must see clear and tangible benefits from
collaboration in order for it to be sustained. If uncertainty exists regarding the
benefits of networking, networks tend to be weak and unproductive. As in all
collaborative arrangements, but especially in competitive environments, trust
between partners needs to be established through the careful development of
relationships between key actors, though conversely working collaboratively can
itself build up trust between partners. The latter is facilitated if competition is seen
as less likely to increase in the future (Lacomba et al. 2011). There is also a need for
clear goals and agreements between partners and leadership skilled at managing
tensions, which can be facilitated by external brokerage (Brandenburger and
Nalebuff 1996; Rosenfeld 1996). All these conditions can be hard to achieve in
competitive situations, and interfirm conflict arising due to disputes over-compet-
itive actions are the main reason for the failure of networking (Pittaway et al. 2004).
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Bengtsson and Kock (2000) point out the difficulties of reconciling the two
competing logics of cooperation and competition at the individual level. Compet-
itive and cooperative areas of activity often involve or should involve different
individuals, who work in only one of the modes of interaction. This allows
participants to avoid internal conflict at the individual level, although some
individuals are still required to incorporate both logics in their actions. This is
particularly critical at the managerial level, where competition-related conflict does
not need to be perceived as a threat, but as an issue for managerial consideration
within the organization. The extent to which firms are able to form networks in the
first place is dependent upon their internal capacity and the extent to which they can
build on existing relationships and networks, and knowledge on how to collaborate
within competitive contexts develops and grows over time (Pittaway et al. 2004).
Network management and governance matter to their success and both over- and
under-formalizations have been found to have negative consequences in terms of
network stability (Nooteboom 2004). External factors, such as government policies,
have also been found to influence the effectiveness and success of networks and
coopetitive relationships and have also been shown in educational contexts
(Chapman et al. 2012).
In light of the evidence of the existence of successful networks in competitive
educational environments, it is worth exploring whether coopetition can provide a
framework that explains their existence and sustainability, and what factors can
influence the success of networking in competitive contexts. In this paper, we will
therefore aim to address the following questions:
What is the nature of the network and to what extent are competition and
cooperation present in inter-organizational interactions?
What factors motivate colleges to form and sustain a collaborative network in a
context of inter-organizational competition?
To what extent can the principles of coopetition explain network sustainability
and decision making within this context? How are cooperative and competitive
actions divided in this network?
What factors appear to help and hinder the effectiveness of networking in a
competitive environment?
Methods
A case study approach was used to study collaboration and competition in a network
of eleven 6th-form colleges, which prepare 16–18-year-old students in England for
A-level exams, required for university entrance. In England, students follow
compulsory schooling up to the age of 16. Following completion of compulsory
education and the national General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)
exams, students can either leave education, do a vocational course, or (dependent on
their GCSE exam results) follow A-level courses. These run for 2 years and
culminate in Advanced A-level exams, which determine university entrance.
A-level education is provided in a number of different settings. Schools will often
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have their own A-level center, which will offer a relatively limited range of courses
to students mostly coming from the 11–16 section of the school. General further
education colleges typically offer a mix of vocational courses, adult education, and
A-level courses, known as 6th-form provision. Finally, specialized 6th-form
colleges offer mostly or exclusively A-level courses. They are typically a lot larger
than school 6th-forms, with up to 3,000 students being common, while being
smaller in overall size than general further education colleges. In this study, we
looked at a network of 6th-form colleges operating in a distinct geographical area in
England. The area is socio-demographically highly varied, with areas of high
affluence and post-industrial poverty coexisting. While being part of a network,
these colleges are also engaged in intense competition for students. Sixth-form
colleges became autonomous institutions following incorporation in 1993, which
released them from local authority control. Full free student choice operates within
the system, and funding is directly dependent on student numbers, which means that
colleges have to compete with one another for students in order to survive.
Competitive pressures are increasing as budgetary problems in the UK have led to
significant per-student funding cuts being implemented by the government.
Alongside these competitive pressures, colleges are subject to strict accountability
regimes, with high stakes inspections by the national school inspection agency
(Ofsted). The network is a formally constituted structure, with an appointed network
coordinator, and was first formed in 1997. It has not only survived, but significantly
expanded its activities over the 15 years of its existence, notwithstanding the fact
that all the constituent colleges compete with one another for students. The aim of
the network is ‘to provide value for money and best serve the needs of young people
in their communities’, through the following:
Collaborating for quality assurance and good practice;
Managing staff networks;
Sharing good practice;
Negotiating with service providers;
Providing local training opportunities; and
Influencing national educational developments.
Network activities now include quality assurance, professional development, joint
procurement, and lobbying among others. Links exist at all levels of the colleges,
from senior management to teachers and administrative staff, and all these groups
are engaged in joint network activities. The college principals form the steering
group for the network.
A case study approach was used to allow us to study the functioning of the
network within this competitive environment in some depth and gain the views of
colleges located in different communities, from wealthy rural areas to deprived
inner city wards. The case was defined as the network itself, with all 11 colleges in
the network providing data. In each college, semi-structured interviews were
undertaken with the principal and with 1–4 other senior managers involved in
partnership working in the network. They included finance managers and leaders in
areas such as professional development and quality assurance (actual post-
definitions vary between colleges). Documentary evidence was collected in the
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form of websites, brochures, and publicity materials. Data from the case studies
consisted of 39 interviews and 32 pieces of documentary evidence. Interviews were
conducted between 23 and 68 min in length. Data were analyzed in two phases:
1. College-level analysis: The evidence for each college was analyzed in order to
determine possible links between contextual factors and perceptions of
collaboration and competition, using a coding system corresponding to
emerging themes (Miles and Huberman 1994). An audit trail was created in
order that claims about the relationship between practices and outcomes can be
subjected to scrutiny (Schwandt and Halpern 1988).
2. Network level analysis: We then carried out a cross-site analysis of the accounts
of practice in relation to the overall research questions. A central strategy here
was the use of ‘group interpretive processes’ as a means of analyzing and
interpreting evidence. These involved an engagement with the different
perspectives of team members in ways that are intended to encourage critical
reflection, collaborative learning, and mutual critique (Wasser and Bresler
1996). In this way, conclusions were reached that are both valid and relevant. In
addition, interviewees from the participating colleges were invited to comment
on the final report before submission.
Results
Muijs et al. (2011) identified four main theoretical positions advocating inter-
organizational collaboration and networking: constructivist organizational theory,
the theory of social capital, ‘new social movement’ theory, and Durkheimian
network theory. According to constructivist theory, organizations are sense-making
systems creating shared perceptions and interpretations of reality. This means that
each organization will to a certain extent have its own unique perception of reality,
albeit one that is anchored in its context. This sense-making function is essential for
organizations to function effectively, but runs the risk of becoming myopic, in that,
this shared perception of reality may be closed to external influences. It is this
myopia that can be addressed through networking with other organizations or other
external partners that can provide access to a complementary cognition. Social
capital theory takes a more instrumental view, stressing the ways networking allows
organizations to harness resources held by other actors, and increases the flow of
information in a network. New social movement is a term coined to describe the
novel forms of social action (such as the environmental movement) that developed
from the 1960s onwards. These are seen as far more fluid than traditional social
movements (such as trade unions) and are characterized not so much by single
insurrections as by a series of events and by organizations/people linked together in
various more or less formal and transient patterns. Hadfield et al. (2005) claims that
networks of schools can be seen as such, displaying as they do a number of these
characteristics, such as transience, complexity, and the need to build up new
identities for the network that are distinct from those of the individual schools
(which may, for some schools, be a key motivator to become part of a network). The
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dominant role of activist leaders can likewise be seen in many school networks. This
perspective seems most appropriate for networks that have developed bottom-up
through autonomous school action. Durkheimian theory sees networking as key to
combatting anomie which can result from a lack of strong ties and a disconnect
between actor’s ideologies and the behaviors they are forced to engage in, often a
problem for schools facing challenging circumstances. All of these perspectives,
then, suggest that collaboration and networking should benefit schools as they
would other organizations. In this network, as suggested, both by the goals of the
network mentioned above and by the interview data suggest that collaboration
within the network is largely seen as beneficial for its individual members. This
instrumental orientation, more than any other, dominated the perceptions on the
value of the network, suggesting an orientation close to social capital theory, and
linked to coopetitive views on collaboration and networking. However, as we will
discuss below, elements of all three other theoretical perspectives were present as
well.
There is clear evidence that although they are competitors, the colleges act as
complementors to one another. This is evident in their relationship to suppliers,
where the network essentially acts as a buying coalition, in which each individual
college can be seen to have strengthened its position with respect to suppliers by
bringing in new players in the form of the other colleges in the network. As such,
the collaborative is seen as having led to a number of cost savings, in particular
relating to joint procurement of services such as insurance. The exact size of the cost
savings differs for each college, but is estimated by some interviewees as being up
to £250.000: ‘In our college, we believe that we have saved well over 200 K by
being part of the network, and this is really one of the key aims for us. It is across a
range of activities, insurance, ICT, procurement, CPD, so really that has been very
beneficial to us’ (Senior Manager).
The network also allows colleges to plug structural gaps and draw on comple-
mentary strengths by allowing them to engage in shared professional development
activities, such as organizing common inset days. These are seen as particularly
helpful in providing high quality professional development as well as in allowing
visits to other colleges to, for example, ‘look at how they use technology, what we can
learn from them’ (curriculum leader). A major part in this is played by the curriculum
support groups, which meet regularly, and which allow teachers in similar subject
areas to share good practice. These are seen a particularly helpful for the smaller
colleges, where a teacher may be the only one in her/his school to teach a less popular
subject, and would otherwise be lacking in opportunities for professional dialog with
peers: ‘We discuss various aspects, curriculum, teaching pastoral care, and that
sharing of expertise is really important’ (curriculum leader). Training happens in a
number of areas, and this can take the form of external partners, such as exam boards
(the private companies licensed to set the A-level exams under the English system)
coming into train subject groups. Working as a group is an advantage here ‘they are
interested in us as a market place, so we can get them in more easily’ (principal),
another example of the colleges acting as complementors in the face of suppliers.
Training can also come from colleagues from other colleges, while specific courses
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for newly qualified teachers (NQT’s) allow them to share their experiences across
colleges.
Another form of this joint professional development is leadership development
which exists both in terms of formal leadership development programs provided by
the group and in leader networks that exist in the group. Both are very positively
perceived within the network. One Vice principal, for example, commented that
‘being part of the Vice principals curriculum group has been really useful and
allows us to share good practice. A piece of work we have been doing recently was
on how we use exam boards and how we coordinate exam board training. We are
coordinating approaches to obtaining training from exam boards, seeing who uses
which exam board for what subject, and how we can coordinate that’. Adminis-
trators also belong to a number of network groups, such as the finance group, and it
is this breadth of networking across levels of staff in the colleges that is said to make
the network particularly useful: ‘Our IT department, for example, have been to
college X, to see what they are doing there’. (Vice principal).
The complementarity of the colleges also expresses itself in relation to
organizing in the face of external threats. The network has put in place a joint
quality assurance system to prepare them for inspections by the national inspection
agency, Ofsted. This system, whereby the colleges work on quality assurance
through visits from trained staff of other colleges who look at particular areas using
Ofsted criteria, is seen as very helpful: ‘It gives us an impartial, external view of the
college’ (principal), and as one of the reasons for the generally excellent inspection
results colleges receive. Outside of the formal quality assurance process staff,
including senior managers, also visit and provide feedback on various occasions,
especially when a college is perceived to have difficulties: ‘There is really an ethos
of being happy to help, and it is like a free consultancy’ (principal).
Colleges are also complementors in the sense of being able to hold greater
political influence as a result of collaboration. By being part of a network, and one
that encompasses a high proportion of A-level provision in the area, the colleges are
able to exert a collective influence that would not be feasible for any single college.
This is evident in relations with exam boards, where the network is able to invite
and have a dialog with key staff, and with politics, where the network allows access
to Ministers and local politicians that may not otherwise be forthcoming. The
network can therefore be seen as possessing elements of a new social movement,
both in its bottom-up approach to network formation, which was an initiative of the
colleges for which no incentives or support was provided, and which exists in part to
obtain greater influence on local and national policy.
There is therefore evidence that the colleges are using collaboration to strengthen
each of them individually, by engaging in activities around professional develop-
ment and procurement that would be hard to achieve otherwise. They draw on each
other’s strengths to fill ‘structural gaps’ in their own organization, such as
weaknesses in particular curriculum areas, and draw on the group as a collective to
strengthen their hand in negotiations with suppliers and in developing more
powerful forms of professional development.
There is also evidence that they engage in coopetition in another way, in that they
collaborate to strengthen their collective market position in light of competition
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from other forms of 6th-form provision, such as from schools and general FE
college 6th-forms. This is evident in the commitment to the network ‘brand’, as
expressed by one interviewee: For us, it is also good to be seen to be a part of the
group, which is considered a kind of mark of quality’ (principal). There was further
evidence of this commitment to grow and protect the 6th-form college market in the
fact of competition from other sector in the fact that colleges had recently
formalized a concordat, part of which was a written commitment to protect 6th-form
provision across the area covered by the consortium, and in particular to support any
of the colleges that became endangered. There was also evidence of a strong
commitment to the national sector of 6th-form colleges, including active member-
ship of national organizations and a desire to promote the sector. It is clear that at
least part of the rationale for the group is to ‘grow the pie’ for 6th-form colleges
when compared with competing forms of A-level provision in schools and general
FE colleges. Collaboration here is therefore in part used as a tactic to shape external
perspectives of 6th-form provision as a whole through demonstrating a shared
commitment to this type of provision, and also by attaching a collective quality
brand to their activities.
The perceived usefulness of collaboration is demonstrated by the setting up of an
additional collaborative network located in the urban part of the county. These
colleges perceive themselves as having specific similarities, interests, and circum-
stances that mean they would benefit from closer collaboration as a group. Member
colleges, however, stress that they see this collaboration as complementary to their
existing collaboration in the larger network, which they perceived as both inherently
valuable and useful and as having a strong ‘brand’ in the region. However,
notwithstanding these stated motivations, from the lens of coopetition theory, it is
likely that the setting up of the new network is also related to the added value that
colleges bring to the original network and the power differentials that result. The
most successful colleges in the network are seen as among the highest performing
providers nationally, and their presence in the network brings very significant added
value in terms of the reputation of the network. This is much less the case for some
of the colleges serving the urban areas, which at times struggle to attract sufficient
numbers of students and are financially weaker as well as showing lower levels of
performance in the A-level exams. This makes their value to the network lower than
that of the highly successful colleges, leads to possible power differentials in the
network (which is chaired by the principal of one of the high performing colleges),
and provides a motivation for the urban colleges to form their own network in which
value added and therefore power will be more equal. Here, one can see elements of
Durkheimian perspectives on networking, in the way in which these colleges feel a
sense of alienation from competitive processes they have to engage in and from the
more powerful colleges within the network, which has led them to collaborate with
one another. However, the urban colleges are all aware of the danger of splitting
from the larger network and potential unfettered competition that may result; hence,
great care is taken to stress allegiance to the larger network.
What was clear was the extent to which as well as collaborating the colleges were
competing with one another. Free enrollment of pupils, with funding dependent on
pupil numbers, meant that colleges pursued active marketing strategies to attempt to
J Educ Change
123
increase their numbers within a context of a presently stable age cohort. This was
evident in a range of ways, from radio advertising, through to prospectuses,
organized school visits and bussing in of students from an often very broad
surrounding area. Therefore, while colleges collaborate to grow their collective
share of A-level provision in terms of student numbers, they are also competing
with each other within their segment. Most studies on coopetition show that gains
accrue differently to collaborating organizations at this stage (e.g. Brandenburger
and Nalebuff 1996), and this is clearly the case in this student market, as evidenced
by very different levels of turnover, student numbers, and student attainment (the
largest colleges have over four times the turnover and student numbers of the
smallest colleges).
The fact that the ‘spoils’ are accruing to competitors to different degrees is
reflected in the different views expressed on competition by the colleges, which to a
large extent mirror differences in success and market power. In those colleges seen
as most desirable and high performing by students and parents, which tended to be
located outside of the largest urban area in the locality, competition was often seen
as a positive: ‘Competition keeps you sharp, it forces you to raise and maintain
standards’ (principal) was a typical quote, and competition was generally seen as a
motivator for improvement. The greater freedom that came with the introduction of
competition was also seen as a benefit: ‘The autonomy that we now have, to shape
policies and practice, has, in my view, strongly improved standards in this college’
(Vice principal). However, in those colleges that were seen as less desirable, in
general, those colleges situated in large urban centers, views were more negative:
‘What are the benefits of competition? There are none’. (principal). In these
colleges, the impact of competition was seen to lie mainly in causing students in
their catchment areas to go elsewhere, leaving them with a smaller and
academically weaker student body then would otherwise be the case. There was
also a perception that competition could work against institutions collaborating for
the benefit of all students in the region, though a strong moral commitment to the
broader student body and the benefits it receives through collaboration was evident
nonetheless.
Whatever the views on competition, it was considered to be a given within the
present system, and one that colleges would have to work within. The network
was seen as playing a key role here, in that it was seen as almost a regulator of
competition in the region. Issues related to competition were frequently discussed
in network meetings, especially those between college principals: ‘Discussions
can become quite heated sometimes’ (principal) and could go into a variety of
issues from marketing to the distance from the college which college buses were
allowed to travel to pick up students. The network had reached a number of
agreements to temper competition, for example, by precluding negative comments
about competing colleges in marketing. In this way, the network had led to what
one principal referred to as ‘civilized competition’. In terms of coopetition theory,
this can be seen as the setting of rules that serve to advance the goal of
strengthening the competitive position of the 6th-form colleges, as a collective, in
the face of competition from other types of providers, as the reputation and
market position in the region of the sector as a whole could be damaged by
J Educ Change
123
competition that led to ultimate failure of one of the colleges. And it was
precisely such a failure that was one of the main impetuses to forming the
network in the first place. In the early days of competition, when the colleges
were first ‘incorporated’ and released from local authority control, competition
had been far fiercer and collaboration limited. It was partly due to some of the
perceived problems with this approach, not least the bankruptcy and closure of a
college, that the group was founded and collaboration strengthened. However,
competition was not necessarily seen as antithetical to collaboration. Several
interviewees commented that the competitive environment had in some senses led
to more genuine collaboration than existed within the local authority controlled
framework, where much was left to the authority, and genuine collaboration
between individual colleges was limited.
A number of factors had helped the network be sustainable and successful over
this 15-year period. As is clear from the discussion above, mutual benefits were seen
as very clearly present, with the colleges acting as complementors to one another.
Building up trust over time had allowed colleges to sustain the network in the face
of competitive pressures. This had been facilitated through personal relationships,
with many of the principals having worked in several of the network colleges before
attaining principalship. A major factor in making the network effective was the role
of the network coordinator. As has been shown in previous research (e.g., Muijs
et al. 2010), the presence of a coordinator who is not one of the principals of the
participating organizations and therefore can act as a neutral mediator as well as
providing essential organizational support and momentum is key to effective
networking. The network clearly has such an arrangement in place, and the
effectiveness of the coordinator was frequently remarked upon. Notably, the group
of colleges are collectively high-performing, with both good overall results and
positive value-added. Colleges in the network are rated as good or outstanding by
the national inspectorate. This is attributed to both collaboration and the benefits of
networking mentioned above, and the autonomy and competitive environment
which have led colleges to improve.
However, threats exist to the sustainability of the network. Increased financial
pressures had recently necessitated the signing of a concordat to formalize
collaborative work and regulate competition, as funding cuts meant that, within the
context of a stable population, the only way for colleges to maintain current staffing
levels would be to grow student numbers, either from competing 6th-form colleges
or other providers in the region. The concordat can be seen as aimed at encouraging
the latter at the expense of the former.
Conclusion
In this paper, we have looked at the relationship between collaboration and
competition in an educational marketplace. What we have found is that, notwith-
standing widely held views about the oppositional nature of competition and
collaboration (e.g. Hargreaves 1996), the two can coexist in ways that may be
beneficial to the effectiveness of the organizations involved.
J Educ Change
123
Collaboration was seen as having a range of benefits, which made even
competing organizations want to engage in it. Improvement for all institutions could
come about through network activities such as professional development and mutual
support, while a key element of collaboration was to temper competition, by
providing frameworks within which this could occur. The commitment to
guaranteeing the continued existence of the other 6th-form colleges in the group
meant both that support would be provided to any college in difficulties, but also
that competition would never be ‘to the death’. Competition, though differentially
viewed by actors in the region, did appear to be motivating to some, and had,
according to some interviewees, strengthened genuine collaboration between the
colleges. The latter is an interesting finding, in that it suggests that in some cases, it
can be competitive pressures along with institutional autonomy themselves that may
create conditions under which collaboration is seen as desirable. In this case, it
appears that the existential threat resulting from competition was the spur that
allowed collaboration to grow.
Of course, there is no guarantee of this happening, and networks in competitive
environments will be under continuous pressure. The possibility of implosion is
ever-present, in that any over-competitive behavior may lead institutions to leave
the network leading to network fragmentation, or the setting up of competing
networks. Growing financial austerity increases these pressures. Lacomba et al.
(2011) finding that collaboration is more likely if future competition is seen as less
likely points to problems for the network, in that financial constraints are likely to
increase rather than decrease competitive pressures. On the other hand, the reduced
economic conditions under which the colleges have to labor may make the network
and collaboration in general even more important, due to the cost savings inherent in
joint procurement and provision of CPD, and in defending the sector against the
existential challenges inherent in lower funding through the support they provide
one another and their commitment to this support. Key is that networks, if they are
to be successful, are seen as being too beneficial to leave, this both in terms of the
material benefits they bring in terms of support and collaborative programs as in
terms of less tangible benefits such as emotional support (Muijs and Rumyantseva
2012). For some institutions, one of the key benefits may be the tempering of
competition. For the more powerful institutions, the benefits on the other hand need
to outweigh those that could accrue from unfettered competition in terms of
generating student numbers. Here, mutual support, shared services and programs,
and a moral commitment to students and the sector come to the fore. It is also clear
that implosion is less likely where relationships are strong and established, not least
at a personal level, and the development of trust therefore has to be a central goal of
the network as well as a means toward other network ends.
Theoretically, this paper has shown that coopetition theory may provide a useful
lens with which to study organizational behavior in education. Simultaneous
competition and collaboration exist and can coexist for a long period as in this
example. The colleges in this study seemed to be acting in a coopetitive way. They
exhibited a largely instrumental approach to networking, stressing tangible benefits,
where other colleges played the role of complementors, strengthening each in
negotiation with suppliers and other stakeholders, as well as with regard to possible
J Educ Change
123
external threats. Colleges also appeared to act in a classically coopetitive fashion by
collaborating to grow and promote 6th-form colleges as the key A-level provider in
the region in the face of competition from schools and general FE colleges, and
simultaneously competed to divide up their share of the overall A-level student
market. Colleges could be seen to be acting in strategic ways predicted by game
theory, such as by bringing in new players (colleges) to support them and change the
parameters of the game, by creating rules, such as the ones to temper inter-
organizational competition, and engaging in a variety of tactics to strengthen their
sector compared to competitors. What this paper therefore demonstrates is both that
the concept of coopetition is one that may usefully be employed to understand and
describe educational contexts and that a number of the conditions under which firms
engage in coopetition exist in the education sector in England and likely in other
countries where policies have encouraged the creation of education markets. This is,
however, a small case study investigation, and further study is needed to confirm the
utility of the concept of coopetition to educational organizations.
Of course, coopetition theory only described cooperative processes to a certain
degree and cannot present a full picture of motivations and reasons for networking
and collaboration. The rational model that underpins the theory has its limitations
and does not account sufficiently for feelings of solidarity or moral purpose, and
genuine beliefs in the value of this type of A-level provision as parts of the glue that
binds the network. Nevertheless, actors themselves provided in majority rational-
istic and instrumental justifications for engaging in network activity, suggesting that
these do play a significant part in decision-making processes in this case.
Furthermore, the extent to which the concept of coopetition is relevant will depend
on the extent to which educational policy in a given country or state has encouraged
the development of a competitive market in education. As demonstrated in Rincke
(2005) and Ghosh (2009), competitive behavior is strongly influenced by policy
decisions, and coopetition as a concept in education is therefore only likely to be
relevant to those contexts in which educational markets are most developed and
most closely resemble markets in the business sector. This means that coopetitive
forms of collaboration are most likely to exist in countries where policies have most
strongly encouraged market formation, within as well as across districts, such as in
Chile, England, and Sweden, and where restrictions on competitive behaviors are
most limited (for example, with regard to the ability to vary salaries and conditions
of work between schools). It is therefore not a concept that will universally describe
collaboration and networking, but is one that is gaining in importance as many
jurisdictions move toward greater marketization of their education systems, as is, for
example, the case in several US states. In light of the benefits of collaboration, it
would seem that districts and local authorities could play an important role as
brokers of networks in their localities.
This study also has obvious methodological limitations. The case study
methodology means that we need to be cautious in terms of generalizing findings.
Interview data were collected primarily from senior managers, which limits the
perspectives sought, while documentary evidence came either from external official
sources (such as Ofsted) or the colleges themselves (such as network contracts).
Further study needs to be undertaken to develop our understanding of coopetitive
J Educ Change
123
processes, both in terms of building the body of case knowledge and in adding
quantitative studies in this area. Nevertheless, this study does shed some light on the
intersection between collaboration and competition in education and can hopefully
make a contribution to developing a more nuanced understanding of the relationship
between the two.
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