International HE leadership needs more critical thinkers

Excellence in international higher education leadership is demonstrated through collaborative partnership building, open-mindedness and versatility. Aspiring leaders in international higher education who strive for excellence walk alongside stakeholder groups on a journey into the future that is bound by ethical considerations, commitment to the social, economic and political well-being of their communities and sustainable community engagement and entrepreneurship.

Excellence in leadership is diffused through an institutional culture that creates the space and opportunity for innovative practices, respectful relationships and responsible and accountable professional encounters. Within the leadership excellence framework, leaders inspire stakeholders to exceed the competency levels of the organisational leadership and to exhibit high levels of innovative practices in collaborative institutional, community and entrepreneurial partnerships.

“Leadership in higher education, seen from a critical perspective, is something of a conundrum: a fuzzy, multi-referential, ever-changing ambiguous concept,” said Professor Jill Jameson in her 2019 book International Perspectives on Leadership in Higher Education.

Unfortunately, the critical review of international higher education leadership performance continues to remain a challenge. It is further exacerbated by the protections provided to executive leadership via an invisible line of impunity despite the growing number of incidents of malpractice, as noted in my previous article “Why we need ethical leadership in international HE”.

Critical thinking

The expectations among higher education stakeholder groups are that ethical behaviours and actions should underscore exemplary leadership excellence.

In addition to the notable inclusion of ethical behaviours among the desirable attributes of leadership excellence, Jameson focuses on “identifying the existence of high-quality leadership in international higher education and its overt relationship (or not) with critical thinking”.

Within the broad frame of reference and articulation of leadership excellence, critical thinking has been less pronounced as a desired attribute of leadership excellence.

Jameson maintains that the alignment of critical thinking with leadership in “the top hierarchical levels of leadership and management of universities” is less visible, although critical thinking is uppermost on the higher education agenda as “universally recognised and valued in academia as a set of cognitive skills and dispositions across all disciplinary fields in teaching and learning in higher education”.

The critical thinking dimension in higher education leadership is an important consideration required to strengthen leadership excellence, allowing leadership teams to demonstrate their higher order abilities which help to distinguish between average leadership and exemplary leadership performance.


Another dimension of the international higher education leadership role that has emerged as a desirable leadership trait during the COVID-19 pandemic is versatility. Versatility is demonstrated through the leader’s ability to be resourceful in varying situations, adapt to the changing needs of stakeholder groups and be able to broaden the parameters of engagement and collaboration in order to achieve mutually agreed goals.

Multi-talented leaders display an agility that is visible in their ability to connect critical thinking skills and problem-solving competencies with vision and an entrepreneurial spirit. They demonstrate leadership excellence in swiftly combining those abilities with context-based solutions to move the organisation forward.

Entrepreneurial problem-solvers

A recent article by Natalie Cruz and Chris Glass identifies a special category of leaders in higher education who demonstrate the ability to be problem-solving entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial problem-solvers in the international higher education space.

This group of individuals are the senior international officers (SIOs) who drive higher education internationalisation portfolios through their various roles and titles. Cruz and Glass “explore the idea of the SIO as an entrepreneur and innovator situated within structured higher education institutions” and contend that SIOs are “catalysts for change, risk-takers, creators”.

SIOs are an example of a special group of leaders with a keen sense of anticipation, an innovative spirit, business acumen and intuitive responses that can transform international higher education challenges into entrepreneurial partnerships based on trust and ethical, respectful engagement.


The internationalisation of higher education is fraught with challenges and requires sustained collaborative, mutually beneficial stakeholder and community engagement, and astute leadership to navigate a turbulent political economy and a COVID-19 pandemic present and future.

Within a constantly changing international higher education landscape impacted by the pandemic since 2019, higher education institutional leadership requires foresight to pre-empt “the curve ball”.

Within international higher education, engaged universities are expanding their reach to embrace multiple stakeholder communities and industries, inviting them to join sustained partnerships.

Engaged universities exemplify leadership excellence that encompasses transparency, ethical principles, continuous assessment of quality assurance standards, respectful engagement and collaboration with institutional stakeholders, industries and the glocal (local and global) communities whom they serve.

Dr Fay Patel is an academic, researcher and an independent international higher education consultant (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA, South Africa, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Hong Kong). Patel contributed to the curriculum development of the INDG 100 Introduction to Indigenous Studies large enrolment course at the First Nations University of Canada in 2021-22. Patel also participated in UNESCO Forums (by invitation of UNESCO Bangkok in 2015) in Thailand and Chengdu, China (online learning, distance learning and MOOC design); the World Bank quality assurance training programme (by invitation, in Malaysia in 2015) and as external peer reviewer (2016-17) in the Bangladesh higher education quality assurance programme; as senior case manager (2017) with the Australian Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, Australia; and independent reviewer in course peer reviews as a contributor to the Peer Review Portal (2021) project, Australia. Patel is author of the paper“Learning Analytics: Framing the right question for the right data to impact teaching and learning effectiveness”; and editor of the 2021 book Power Imbalance, Bullying and Harassment in Academia and the Glocal (Local and Global) Workplace. E-mail