Home advantage?

Top universities demand the best in the world as leaders. But when does a fresh international outlook outweigh domestic knowledge and experience?

September 5, 2019
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“We have today launched a global search to recruit an outstanding new president and provost. The role presents a rare opportunity to lead one of the world’s most ambitious, impactful, collaborative and global universities.” And so on and so forth.

The message subtly relayed in this recent press release, in case you missed it, is that the institution in question is a global heavyweight and its next leader must be the same.

There is nothing unusual in this. The “global search” is now industry standard when a top research university heads to market to find its next vice-chancellor.

But how accurate is the assumption that there is a genuinely global market for university presidents?

And what are the pros and cons of seeking out a leader who is a known quantity – and who knows the lie of the land – versus an outsider?

We considered the first of these questions in a recent news analysis, based on exclusive THE analysis of the world’s top 400 universities, which revealed that, outside of the very highest ranking institutions, the large majority (four-fifths) did not have leaders with an international background.

In this week’s news pages, we delve further into the data, investigating how many of these hires are internal promotions and how many are external recruits.

The answer is that there is significant variance by system, with Germany (where elected leaders are common) and the US among those favouring internal appointments, and the heavily internationalised and marketised UK and Australian systems looking outwards.

Our data also highlight similar patterns when looking at length of tenure for leaders.

In our cover story, we look in detail at the relative advantages of recruiting internationally or seeking a leader from closer to home.

An insider has some obvious advantages. A leader promoted from within the university will have institutional knowledge, for example, and prior working relationships.

An external but domestic candidate will also have the advantage of immediate knowledge and experience of the policy environment and at least some of the pinch points.

A globetrotting, international outsider, meanwhile, will have less of this hinterland to draw on, but will, perhaps, bring with them a fresher perspective and valuable insights from elsewhere.

So how difficult is it for outsiders to get up to speed with a new operating environment?

For Maastricht University rector Rianne Letschert, the complexity can be overdone. “Would it be so difficult for me to run an Australian university if I took the time to learn and listen? I think it takes half a year and then you know the institution,” she says.

And there are advantages to taking on the top job without preconceptions, says Dawn Freshwater, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia. “When I came to Australia [from the UK] I had no idea whose toes I was treading on. Some people have very long toes. But I could see what needed to be done,” she says.

However, the world is a big place, and higher education sectors are far from homogeneous.

While a global leadership model might work well in the UK, Australia or Singapore, it is harder to imagine a straightforward transplant from a Western system to mainland China or Japan.

And even in systems where transfers do make sense, it is crucial to assess whether the time is right for a major change at the top.

Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, argues that “you’ve got to appoint a leader suitable for the time. In the kind of crisis we have in South Africa now, it may be very challenging to have someone from outside who doesn’t understand the social and political issues…It’s not that the outsider will not be skilled; an excellent leader in peacetime who fails in crisis time is not necessarily a bad leader.”

Perhaps not. But that makes the selection process itself – the careful balancing of the needs of the institution at a particular moment – all the more important.

It is a reminder of the crucial role of universities’ governing bodies. Their role is not just to provide the right blend of support and challenge to a leader when they are in post, but to understand what the university requires and to appoint the right person at the right time.


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