Universities worldwide face unprecedented challenges. Higher education is now a global marketplace with fierce competition for students and resources. Meanwhile, new technologies enabling online courses to be delivered to an almost limitless audience are pulling down the final barriers. With intense pressure on universities to attract students, achieve excellent research and teaching results, and exploit new technologies within constrained resources, never has there been a greater need for outstanding leaders. Academic institutions are increasingly emulating business in seeking out talented leaders globally, often with diverse backgrounds to help them realise their ambitions for the institution.

“The era of university entitlement is over,” explains Professor Paul Johnson, Vice-Chancellor of The University of Western Australia. “The second half of the twentieth century represented a golden age of significant expansion of higher education systems, during which universities seldom had to make a case for public support; the funds just kept rolling in. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and everything has changed.”

Governments, financially constrained, expect universities to shoulder their share of the financial burden, while employers want universities to become more responsive and less introspective, an engine for business growth and economic prosperity. Sir Tim Wilson, UK Government Advisor on Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in Universities, has called on universities to provide “high-level skills, a world-class research base and a culture of enquiry and innovation”.

At the same time, students are questioning the value of a university degree, no longer seen as an automatic passport to a well-paid job. High unemployment among new graduates and rising tuition fees are driving many to seek ways of getting a foot on the work ladder as soon as possible. Online learning means there is time to catch up later, or fit in a degree alongside a career.

Those who are prepared to invest in an undergraduate degree expect to be taught by the best, and universities must continue to strike a balance between teaching and research, particularly at the UK’s leading universities. Research, favoured by government funding since the 1960s, still absorbs some 60% of many academics’ time. Quoted recently in The Times, Professor Michael Arthur, President and Provost of University College London (UCL), said that his top global institution needs to improve its undergraduate teaching further if it is not to risk losing applicants. The student – now, more than ever before, a consumer – calls the shots.

But with threats come opportunities, and successful universities will capitalise on these shifts. Standing still is not an option.

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21st Century Academic Leadership

Virginia Bottomley

Rt Hon Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone, DL Virginia Bottomley chairs the Odgers Berndtson Board & CEO Practice. She conducts searches for Chairs, CEOs and Non-Executive Directors for plcs and pri...

Fatima Koumbarji

Fatima Koumbarji is the Partner and Chair of Odgers Berndtson's Education and Children's Service Practice and is based in our London office. She is an experienced search consultant delivering senio...

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