Recruitment of top academic leaders is getting harder

Recruiting high-quality academics to fill senior leadership positions is becoming increasingly challenging for Australia’s universities. Serious investment in workforce planning to ‘build future talent’ is urgently needed, experts argue.

This is the conclusion to a study into the patterns of recruitment of academic leaders by Australian universities*.

The researchers say that increasing competition, an ageing academic workforce, and a lack of succession planning are among the factors making it more difficult for universities to attract top academics to fill vacant senior positions.

The situation has become so serious that universities are increasingly turning to executive search firms to locate the best people from within Australia and around the world.

Hiring outsiders

A key finding is that although universities are spending significantly larger sums recruiting outsiders to fill senior positions, they are not investing in developing their own leaders from within their own institutions.

“Ideally, universities would be better served by recruiting their own staff, perhaps from their large pools of sessional academics,” the researchers say.

This is a reference to the tendency of Australian employers to dispense with permanent staff and instead hire workers on temporary contracts and lower wages.

To invest in boosting the capabilities of their own academics to take on senior responsibilities, however, would need comprehensive workforce planning that includes “succession planning, professional development and mentoring to build their workforce from within”, the researchers write.

They argue that this, in turn, would require staff who specialise in recruitment and selection “along with others who are experts at workforce planning and implementation”.

At the same time, say the authors, “it is also important that universities bring outsiders into the university with new ideas and ways of doing things”.

Because of the “dynamic and ever-changing environment” in which universities operate, they face an array of different challenges that place them in a high-risk position.

“Such pressures are not traditionally associated with universities and the situation has been made worse by declining government funding, forcing them to become more corporate or business-like,” they write.

The authors quote a report by Ernst & Young that refers to university leaders interviewed by the team “who knew they had to act with urgency to prepare their institutions to compete in a very different world to today”.

“They are also operating within a funding and policy context that makes such changes difficult, meaning that any solution will require government and university collaboration to address.”

One policy after another

Their report lists some of the dozen or more policy changes that have impacted on Australia’s higher education system since 1989, the year that Australia’s unique (at the time) Higher Education Contribution Scheme, known as HECS, was introduced to help the nation’s university students meet their study costs.

This came after the West review of universities in 1987, and was followed by the Bradley review in 2008, the Knight review in 2010, the creation of a Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency the following year, and the student visa programme in 2012.

If all these changes weren’t enough to exhaust the vice-chancellors, then came the excellence in research for Australia scheme in 2016, followed by a revised ‘higher education standards framework’ in 2017.

That was the year that saw the conservative government scrap Australia’s 'demand-driven funding system' where universities received additional grants for every extra student they enrolled.

And also included in these financial shocks was a two-year freeze on government funding of universities.

In other words, this was a sequence of upheavals that left many university leaders deciding it was time to retire or move to another more tranquil profession.

Change the only constant

So among the great challenges for Australia’s higher education leaders has been the constant change in government policy, making managing universities more complex and challenging, say the researchers.

Adding to this is the growing competition for staff and students from within Australia and overseas, coupled with an ageing academic workforce, the declining attractiveness of academia as a profession, and a lack of succession planning.

“This combination of factors has made it increasingly difficult for universities to attract quality senior academic leaders,” the researchers say.

“Traditional methods of recruitment, such as advertising, are no longer effective. Therefore universities have turned to executive research firms to help them recruit senior staff.”

But, in shifting the responsibility of finding new leaders to outsiders, universities have also “divested themselves of funds and influence over the selection of candidates for leadership positions”.

“The universities that make a serious investment and commitment to workforce planning by building future talent from within will not only retain university knowledge, loyalty and established culture but foster a true commitment from current staff and be seen as an employer of choice from those outside the university,” the authors conclude.

*Patterns of recruitment of academic leaders to Australian universities and implications for the future of higher education; Susan Loomes, Allison Owens and Grace McCartney; Journal of Higher Education, Policy and Management, Vol 41, No 2, April 2019.