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Guidelines for the Cooperation with Partners in Difficult Contexts

In our activities, H-BRS operates on the foundation of the German Basic Law, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the United Nations declaration of human rights. As laid down in the Magna Charta Universitatum, freedom of research and teaching is an indispensable basic prerequisite for academic life and the successful operation of universities.

It includes the principles of the pursuit of truth and basis in fact as well as the absence of ideological or religious influence or any form of influence on content by external stakeholders. These principles are increasingly in challenge by a number of countries and governments, their institutions being qualified as “Partners in Difficult Contexts” by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Following its recommendations, we at HBRS see those institutions in countries, which are rated in group “E” in the Academic Freedom Index (AFI), as “Partners in Difficult Contexts”. It cannot be a solution to categorically exclude the cooperation with such institutions and isolate complete scientific systems. We are aware of the conflicting forces at play in the national higher education and research systems and are able to differentiate between their various actors. Students and academics from all countries are part of the global scientific community. The exchange with them is enriching on an academic and intercultural level, and significant progress towards solving global challenges cannot be made without their contribution. The intensification of dialogue and cooperation with international partners – on the basis of our own clear standpoint and set of values, as well as across the spectrum of disciplines – is essential. The aim cannot be to question academic cooperation in general. Instead, a differentiated view of the specific framework conditions, objectives and content of individual partnerships and projects is needed. The guidelines presented here provide a framework to evaluate individual projects before this background and help to decide where cooperation is useful and in line with our values, and where it is not. They are based, among others, and partly verbatim, partly paraphrased, on studies and frameworks by H-BRS as well as a number of German and international institutions.



Academic freedom is the overarching philosophy of H-BRS. Our partnerships, and all academic exchange, are based on the freedom of research and teaching. There must not be any censorship of academic discourse. Debate is led solely by scientific arguments, and not by political orientation, ideology, religion, gender, or the like.

Guidelines and Standards

The structure of this chapter is based on the Guidelines and Standards in International University Cooperation by the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK, published in April 2020).

Strategy and governance

Long-term commitment and equal partnership

In our cooperation with international partners, we adopt a partnership-based approach and aspire to stable partnerships with a long-term perspective. In our partnerships with international institutions, we define our goals and interests and pursue them within the framework of our principles and strategies.

Sound basis for cooperation and mutual respect

Sound knowledge of the international partner and its research milieu is central to the success of a partnership. Mutual acknowledgement of differing cultural paradigms and approaches is also essential. Mutual respect involves making differing views and convictions transparent and addressing potential frictions at an early stage. No individual person or institution are excluded on the basis of their background, political orientation, religion, gender or geographical location.

Stable governance and professional management

Transparent responsibilities and a clear allocation of tasks are essential to successful cooperation and enable the partners to bring their specific strengths to bear in the partnership. We define transparent decision-making structures which also include procedures that apply in the event of a disagreement, and clearly outlined exit strategies in the interests of risk management. Transparency must also govern the selection and admission of staff and students, as well as funding criteria and decisions. For all cooperation projects, the commissioner for export control (“Exportkontrollbeauftragte/r”) has to be involved in the reviewing procedures. In addition, independent experts will assist the assessment of planned projects. In the case of research projects, for example, this is the ethics commissioner (“Ethikbeauftragte/r”) of the respective faculty. Using a catalogue of criteria, they examine the extent to which rights could be impaired in the respective cooperation project, rules of fairness could be disregarded and principles of liberty could be violated, and recommend steps to guarantee basic guidelines for international cooperation. Compliance with the national rules on export control (laws and regulations on foreign trade), European laws and, if applicable, US law and the confidentiality of security-related research must be assured. Staff at H-BRS involved in projects with international partners engage in mutual exchange with each other, and with outside experts (e.g., from DAAD, HRK), to learn from best practices.

Transparent and balanced funding

Our cooperation projects with international partners are based on a funding model which guarantees a partnership on an equal footing, and in which long-term dependencies are avoided.

Transparent communication

In our internal communications we discuss and formulate fundamental principles and frameworks for our international activities and cooperations which provide guidance to our members. In the context of our external communications, we affirm our international commitment and the guidelines on which it is based. In the case of China, a coordinator under the responsibility of the Vice President International Affairs and Diversity is responsible for the oversight on China-related projects. The coordinator is a contact person for university staff who intend to initiate partnerships with China, and contributes his/her specific knowledge when concerns arise.

Acknowledgement of basic institutional rules

Students and researchers from all over the world are part of the higher education community. They have the same rights, as well as the same duties, as all members of the university. The basic institutional rules that are compulsory for all in equal measure include the law applicable to the protection of intellectual property and the acknowledgement of both the university’s constitution and Germany's constitution based on the principles of democracy and liberty. International students and visiting academics are supported and assisted on our campus. Several contact points at H-BRS offer information, consultation, and support. They are able to receive and process complaints and maintain strict confidentiality (e.g., International Office, Vertrauenspersonen at the departments, study program coordinators). 


Joint teaching, learning and research

Freedom of research and teaching

In our cooperation with international partners freedom of research and teaching must be guaranteed. Freedom of teaching includes the content and methodological design of lectures and seminars, the selection of topics and teaching material (including map material), the selection of assessment formats and the teaching context. Teaching staff and students have the right to express academic or creative opinions freely. Freedom of research includes the selection of questions and research subjects, the methodology and assessment of the research outcomes and their dissemination, for example by way of publication. Cooperation projects should install review and decision procedures for the handling of problematic incidents and define procedures that apply in the event of a disagreement.

Added value of joint teaching, learning and researching

Our cooperation projects provide added value for our university, its members, and society at large. In the case of China, for instance, the know-how transfer was historically mainly directed towards China, with Germany as the technologically more advanced nation. Meanwhile, China has become a technology leader in various fields. This allows the transfer of knowledge to become bi-directional, and offers numerous opportunities for our staff and students in our strive for excellence. Jointly developed curricula and study programs represent an attractive opportunity to enable students at their home university to gain international and intercultural experience and to produce culturally sensitive and broadly educated citizens of the world. Research is inherently international: it lives and evolves through local, national or global exchange and competition of hypotheses and academic knowledge and findings. Our cooperation in research with international partners always takes place in the sphere of tension between cooperation and competition.

Quality-assured cooperation in teaching and learning

In our engagement in joint teaching we ensure the quality of the study programs we offer within the framework of our institutional quality assurance processes. This includes a quality-assured selection of all participating students based on transparent and verifiable criteria, ongoing further development of the curricula and transparent and reliable examination processes. In using a range of modern teaching technologies, joint standards for access and use of digital teaching modules are formulated. In relation to their academic qualifications, teaching staff involved in joint teaching meet the requirements of both H-BRS and the international partners. In order to sustain quality in a long-term relationship we strive to take joint responsibility for the continuing education of teaching staff and schedule time and capacity for further academic, linguistic and intercultural training of the responsible instructors.

Quality-assured cooperation in research and innovation

Our cooperation projects with international partners in the area of research and innovation are based on a governance model which guarantees that the project and the results generated in its course benefit both sides. This not only includes transparent rules in relation to the joint use of research infrastructure, but also observance of internationally accepted publication practice, for example with respect to authorship and quality assurance through review processes.

Observance of research, ethical and legal standards

Freedom of research and teaching goes hand in hand with a special responsibility on the part of individual researchers and of the university as a whole. In our cooperation projects, the partners ensure adherence to academic and ethical standards and observe the general principles of good research practice, as set out in our Richtlinie der H-BRS zur Umsetzung des Kodex „Leitlinien guter Wissenschaftlicher Praxis der DFG vom August 2019“. This especially includes compliance and enforcement of

  • the export control regulations by the Federal Office Economic Affairs and Export Control (BAFA),
  • Art. 44 ff. GDPR (Principles of data transfer to third countries),
  • the laws and regulations for the protection of intellectual property,
  • regulations on handling questions of security-related research.
Promoting the mobility of students, teaching staff and researchers

As globally minded institution, H-BRS has a keen interest in recruiting qualified students, doctoral candidates and academics worldwide, whether for a temporary stay or permanently. We provide information to international applicants about our study programs, access and admission rules and the costs involved, and offer academic orientation and social and cultural support at both the central and departmental level. By the same token, we promote the international mobility of our students, whether for a study program or a practical placement. Transparent rules in relation to the selection, progression and subsequent recognition of the stay abroad facilitate international mobility. Likewise, we strive to support our staff and students with offerings for academic and intercultural preparation and follow-up of their stay abroad.


Universities as transnational spaces

Intercultural dialogue and transnational campus

In the context of our international partnerships, H-BRS is an advocate for open dialogue. The fundamental prerequisites for this are fact-based discussion and tolerance towards different opinions, while also recognizing the regulations that apply to all university members in equal measure. Interaction and dialogue between all students and researchers create channels for open communication across cultural and language barriers, which stimulate thinking and change processes among all participants, enable people to learn from one another and promote cultural sensitivity and mutual understanding. A university with such a transnational orientation is enriching for all university members.

Living a culture of welcome

We offer international students and researchers orientation and support before they take up their studies or their research work, and during their studies or project. As part of planning a partnership, we take social support for international students, teaching staff and researchers into consideration from the outset. We welcome our international graduates as members of our alumni network.

Promotion of linguistic competence and multilingualism

We support international students and visiting academics in acquiring and improving their German and, if necessary, English language skills. Likewise, we support our domestic students, researchers and other university staff in acquiring and improving their foreign language skills. Alongside the proactive use of English as an academic lingua franca, we consciously advocate the promotion of the German and other languages and multilingualism, in recognition of the fact that linguistic competence is an important prerequisite for a successful stay in Germany or abroad. Further, language skills facilitate our graduates’ integration into the respective foreign labour markets.

Concluding Remarks

Freedom of teaching and research is the non-negotiable fundamental principle that applies to our international activities and partnerships. These guidelines aim to proactively shape the collaboration and ensure benefits for both sides. We encourage our university members to continue and intensify the rewarding academic engagement also with ”difficult partners”, and to establish and develop transnational academic cooperation. This is key to the prosperous development of the global community, even in complex contexts.