Research Excellence Summit: attracting and retaining academic talent

Ahead of the 2017 THE Research Excellence Summit, taking place in Taiwan from tomorrow, we hear from Partha S. Mallick on the importance of valuing talent

July 2, 2017
Talent, skill
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Let me start with a multiple choice question.

The most important factor to make a university great is: a) Excellent buildings; b) Modern labs; c) A great library; d) Talented people.

I'm guessing that Most of you will go for “d”: talented people. Only those with talent can make proper use of modern labs or a rich library. The major problem that universities will face in the near future is getting talent, and retaining it.

Talent management is a relatively well-known concept, and many are doing research to improve its processes. But the intrinsic qualities of leaders can make a difference. The care, love, sacrifice and dedication of employers really can play a significant role in the university world – a competitive environment where talent is limited, and the market is global. 

It’s not simply a case of either developing our own talent or hiring people with the skills we need. I believe it needs the right combination of both. The former is cost effective, and helps the university to grow in the long run; the latter can help the university to accelerate its growth, but this is expensive. Getting new people on board immediately is a challenge for universities, and it is essential to build an environment that allows them to hit the ground running.  

Proper training and motivation are an integral part of this. Training should be needs-based, rigorous, in-house, long-term, and be delivered by the appropriate people. System is more important than individual. You need an effective, transparent training system – this can help to motivate and retain people. In this respect, new universities can arguably perform better than the more established universities, since older institutions may face the challenge of changing their old system.    

Handing out high salaries – attractive though this is to many – cannot be the only factor to take into consideration when looking to retain talented professors. The right environment and culture, the right facilities, the people available in the department, diversity, inclusivity, and how the university takes care of employees’ families and children can all play a major role. It is no good hiring the best academics if you then fail to retain them.

Diversity and inclusivity are important for several reasons. You can’t make a good building without engineers, designers, quality control experts, and financial advisers, can you? In the same way, without experts from different areas, you cannot build the right culture for research. Diversity helps to bring unconventional thoughts to the table, and unconventional thoughts help to make breakthroughs in research.

The cross-fertilisation of ideas can successfully be implemented if people from all fields work together, and universities need to be more aggressive to establish a diverse culture on campus if they want better research outcomes - both in terms of quality and quantity.

A high quality higher education system is not a luxury; it is the right of everyone. To ensure this, governments and universities need to take more responsibility to establish the right culture where the talents will be able to work.

Partha S. Mallick is director of rankings and accreditation at Vellore Institute of Technology University in India.

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