Bias towards domestic leaders undermines ‘global market for talent’ talk

Data on nationality of presidents and vice-chancellors among top 400 institutions shows vast majority come from own system

July 9, 2019
Source: Getty

The leaders of the world’s top universities are much more likely to be recruited from within their own higher education system than from a wider international pool of talent, an analysis by Times Higher Education suggests.

Data collected on the nationalities of those heading the top 400 institutions in THE’s World University Rankings indicate that only a minority (fewer than a fifth) have a background in a system outside the country where they now work.

International recruitment was more likely towards the top of the ranking – about a quarter of universities in the top 100 are being steered by leaders originally from other countries, including the world’s top four institutions.

But the greater domestic focus on recruitment further down the list appears to go against claims often made in some places – sometimes as a justification for paying high salaries – that university leaders are being appointed from a global market for talent.

Timothy Devinney, university leadership chair and professor of international business at the University of Leeds, said higher education in many countries was so “embedded” within a specialist policy environment that to succeed, institutional leaders had to have “local knowledge competence that only comes from being an insider”.

He gave the UK as one example, with its specific policies such as the research and teaching excellence frameworks, which meant that administrators with deep background knowledge of such schemes had an advantage.

But other factors were at play too, including language, the size of a sector and the particular skill set required in countries that placed different requirements on their leaders, Professor Devinney said.

This last factor was particularly relevant in the US, where being an excellent fundraiser was a key requirement of the post, something that was not so crucial in other systems such as the UK or Australia, he said.

“If you do not have those skills, you are out of the US game quickly. Most Australia/UK administrators simply lack the skills to operate in the US environment, while many US deans or academics could operate in the UK/Australia environment but find that they are not rewarded for their skills and hence will likely stay in the US,” Professor Devinney said.

His point was backed up by the THE data, which suggest that although Australia had a number of top 400 leaders from outside the nation, they were more likely to be from the UK than anywhere else.

Professor Devinney added that the huge growth in the use of executive search firms to help appoint university leaders was another factor in recruitment seemingly having more of a domestic focus.

“Search firms don’t want to put candidates forward who will turn the job down or prove difficult in negotiations or be perceived as too different. Hence, it is safer for them to focus mostly [locally] with a few international candidates tossed in for variety,” he said.

Although there was often talk in job prospectuses about wanting “dynamic leadership and an appetite for change”, Professor Devinney said this was actually “the last thing most places want”.

“The reality is that they want someone to keep things moving along the same trajectory” because “the cost of turning the behemoth is huge”, Professor Devinney said.

The Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Summit will be held at City University of Hong Kong from 17 to 19 July.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Global market for talent’? Bias towards domestic leaders suggests not

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