Higher education in 2021 – the people landscape

The impact of changes to the Australian higher education sector brought about by the global pandemic are far reaching. But what are the effects on the sector’s fundamental strength – its people? Is Australia different to other countries? Given the international reach of our search assignments together with the global nature of the alliance to which we belong (across 45 countries), we thought it would be useful to share some observations.


Australia is attractive to international candidates

Government policies and press reaction over the past few years, in relation to visas for example, raised questions about the openness of Australia. More recently however, our relative success in managing both the health response to the pandemic and the associated social and economic challenges has been noted internationally. We are seen as a safe, well governed country with good health and social services. Challenges of short-term travel aside, there is no doubt that our attractiveness as a destination for talent is strong.


Academics are still mobile

While it will always be situationally specific, there is a continued willingness of academic and professional leaders to consider new opportunities. While some of the factors that attract individuals may have changed and personal circumstances altered as a result of the pandemic, we are not generally observing a reluctance to explore opportunities that involve domestic or international relocation.


The education sector is attractive to those outside

There has always been movement into the higher education sector of professional/ executive talent. With the higher profile of academics and scientists, not only as a result of COVID 19 but also climate change and other challenges, awareness of the sector and its importance has increased. Universities are well placed to attract leaders with skills which are particularly appropriate for some of the challenges and opportunities they face.


Soft and agile leadership skills are in demand

Institutions are placing more importance on two key traits when making senior appointments: capacity to lead people and to navigate within an uncertain environment. There is a desire to identify individuals with the capacity to think innovatively particularly from a teaching and learning perspective. We are already seeing institutions specify these as key criteria and seeking evidence in candidates, even to the extent of testing for it.


Diversity remains a key issue

Diversity of leadership remains a key topic within the sector. As Universities position themselves within the new operating environment, there is a recognition that diversity in all its forms (cultural, geographic, socio economic, academic experience as well as gender) adds essential strength to leadership teams.


How 2021 will develop is far from certain.  The way the higher education sector will emerge from the pandemic and adapt to longer term change is also unclear. What is evident however is the importance of agile, experienced, diverse and forward-looking leadership teams to provide institutions with clarity and vision.


Rohan A. Carr
February 2021

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