Building a university: international staff recruitment

Yusra Mouzughi on the many dilemmas faced when recruiting staff to a brand-new university

May 1, 2017
Oman, Muscat
Source: iStock

Yusra Mouzughi is deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at Muscat University, and will be blogging regularly on the challenges of setting up a new university. The institution is due to open its doors in Muscat, the capital of Oman, in September. 


As academics have become more mobile in their careers, they are looking further afield in their search for the next promotion. And with the growth of international partnerships, satellite campuses and franchise agreements, international recruitment campaigns have become ever more popular.

A staff recruitment campaign (to those who are not actually involved in it) can engender positive feelings. It indicates growth and investment in the institution, as well offering exciting opportunities to bring in fresh blood and share new ways of working. However, for those who have been involved in the process, it is more likely to conjure images of a mass of résumés (mostly wholly inappropriate); a series of shortlisting meetings; and a huge coordination effort to set up interview panels consisting of super busy individuals (some needed because of their expertise, others for legal or HR reasons). 

Most worryingly, there is never a guarantee of success. You might not even be able to make an appointment (and if you do, there’s the fear that you have made the wrong appointment!).

While recruiting staff mainly from the country in which you are based brings many challenges, international staff recruitment poses a whole host of dilemmas.

One of the biggest is identifying where to advertise to increase the likelihood of getting a reasonable field of candidates (without being inundated with applications that are not relevant). A small ad providing some generic information and a link to the university website can sometimes be just as powerful as a full-page ad in a leading newspaper.

Having gone through the applications (and hopefully arrived at a healthy roster of possible candidates), the next dilemma is how you interview them. Nothing beats a face-to-face interview, but is it really a good use of university money to fly people halfway across the world just to be able to see them? The answer is YES!

What you pick up from a candidate as you show them around the building or as you introduce them to other staff can tell you a whole lot more than what they tell you in the interview itself. A virtual interview may be a good way of whittling a longlist into a shortlist, but if you are serious about making an offer, it is worth seeing a candidate in real life.

Expectations about remuneration packages (salary and benefits) make for a very interesting set of dilemmas, too. Whereas in the UK, academic salaries are usually publicised, other parts of the world do not benefit from this level of transparency; thus, negotiating a remuneration package can be a minefield of sensitive emails and conversations that eat up a lot of time – and possibly set things off in the wrong tone. The Gulf in particular has a reputation for paying excessively high salaries, yet in fact this is not always true. Nevertheless, this belief can lead to seriously inflated expectations on the part of the candidate, and also to feelings of disappointment when a perfectly decent package is offered.

So making a decision about when to talk money is another consideration. Before, during or after the interview? It is difficult to decide which might work best.

One thing to bear in mind when appointing an overseas individual who has a family is that, at least for an initial period, you are taking on not simply a single person but in fact a whole family. To be a good employer where staff can feel comfortable, prosper and flourish, you need to do as much as possible to help the whole family settle. This can include offering advice on schooling, accommodation, travel plans and cultural awareness. It is a very fine line between being a caring employer and a nosy boss. 

Having said all this, when the process is successful – when everything works out and the correct appointment is made – it is truly wonderful to see the benefits of cross-cultural working coming to fruition and, from a personal perspective, to see the multitude of life opportunities being offered to the candidate and their family.

Yusra Mouzughi is deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at Muscat University.

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