Senior Interim Talent: An Innovative Solution for Today's Academic Challenges in Australia - Gig Executive

Senior Interim Talent: An Innovative Solution for Today’s Academic Challenges in Australia

Higher Education – Sector Update November 2022

Senior Interim Talent: An Innovative Solution for Today’s Academic Challenges in Australia

Insights by Martin Searle


In the ever-evolving landscape of academia, Australian universities face numerous challenges that demand innovative solutions. From funding cuts to the need for digital transformation, the academic sector requires fresh perspectives and expertise to navigate these complexities. One such solution that holds great potential is the use of senior interim talent.

Earlier this year I attended the Universities Australia Conference in Canberra. A highlight was the release of the Accord discussion paper by Professor Mary O’Kane, leading the Universities Accord review in partnership with the independent panel and government. Universities Australia Chief Executive, Catriona Jackson, noted ‘This is the biggest opportunity for policy reform in our sector in decades’. The Accord is set to shape the agenda of the future decades, prioritising: Australia’s future knowledge and skills needs; access and opportunity; investment and affordability; governance, accountability and community; vocational education to higher education interconnection; quality and sustainability; and, delivering knowledge, innovation and capability.

Universities hold a pivotal position in the determination of Australia’s future. Even the recent referendum shows that a lack of education leaves people more likely to be vulnerable to misrepresentations in the media, to a narrower worldview, and to polarised social positioning.

The higher education sector is not only being asked to do more with less, but to reinvent itself while doing more with less.

From 1995 to 2021 government funding to the university sector has declined by $6.5bn, which equates to 46.5% of current higher education funding. In the meantime, hybrid learning, digitised curriculums, AI, and the rise in expectations of the student and employee experience are disruption the value universities stand to provide.

How can an interim talent solution address the challenges in Australian academia?

In this article, I will explore how embracing senior interim talent can address the challenges faced by Australian academia and drive positive change.

Funding Cuts and Budget Constraints

As funding becomes scarcer, universities are forced to find creative ways to optimise their resources. Hiring senior interim talent into hard-to-place roles allows institutions to access highly skilled professionals on a short-term basis, providing cost-effective solutions to critical issues.

Ensuring leadership on ethics, engagement and cultural literacy is emerging as a top priority for universities today. Our live industry data tells us that ‘sustainability’ and ‘ESG governance are emerging capabilities across APAC Universities, showing a 5% growth rate over the past 12 months, with Melbourne University, Queensland University and RMIT the top employers of this talent.

Aging Acedemic Workforce and Succession Planning

The academic workforce in Australia is aging, creating the need for succession planning and knowledge transfer. This undercurrent of generational change sees an increased number of senior academics exiting the workforce placing greater focus on leadership development. Senior interim talent brings a wealth of experience and expertise, bridging the gap and ensuring a smooth transition while maintaining institutional knowledge.

Digital Transformation in Education

To stay competitive in the global education landscape, digital transformation is essential. The sector is experiencing increasing difficulty in attracting high-demand professional skillsets across cyber security, systems engineering and digital innovation, creating a barrier to the systems change needed immediately at an operational level. Underpinning this capability gap is a capacity gap. Despite the world-class research and development occurring at Australia’s universities, commercialisation is too often a lost opportunity for the nation. Senior interim talent often includes individuals who have already had a career in technology and innovation and can guide universities in implementing effective strategies to enhance the teaching and learning experience.

Attracting Students

With increasing competition for international students, universities must differentiate themselves. How can the student value proposition be sharpened? Senior interim talent with commercial and marketing experience can support a move towards a system of student data capture over the entire student lifecycle to drive improved student completions, outcomes, and lifelong learning opportunities. Such valuable insights and strategies would attract and retain national and international students, ensuring their success and contributing to the institution’s growth.

The Potential of AI in Enahcing Education

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to revolutionise education. Senior interim talent with expertise in AI can help universities harness this technology to improve teaching methodologies, enhance student experiences, stay ahead of governance, and drive research advancements.

Benefits of Using Senior Interim Talent

Our recent work with the Australian Catholic University (ACU), saw senior interim talent engaged to provide leadership in the learning, teaching, and student engagement function. Our placed seasoned professional came with extensive experience in the tertiary education sector, and successfully led the innovation in Vocational Education and Training (VET) within ACU College.

Recent statistics reveal that the fastest-growing job titles in higher education in Australia are Dean of Faculty, Professor Emeritus, and Academic Dean. Moreover, over 1,500 senior academics have changed jobs in the past month alone. These figures highlight the increasing demand for senior talent and the tangible impact they can have on universities.

I encourage you to think through the benefits of utilising senior interim talent. They bring decades of academic expertise, fresh perspectives, and the ability to navigate complex challenges. Their presence brings a surge of innovative thinking and strategic guidance, benefiting both institutions and students.

As Australian academia faces unprecedented challenges, it is imperative to explore innovative solutions, including in the area of your talent strategy. Embracing senior interim talent offers a unique opportunity to address these challenges, drive positive change, and foster a culture of continuous improvement. By leveraging the expertise, experience, and fresh perspectives of senior interim talent, universities can navigate the complexities of today’s academic landscape and flourish in the face of adversity. Let us embrace this innovative approach and shape the future of Australian higher education together.

Martin Searle leads the Gig Executive Higher Education Practice
Martin is an Associate Partner in our Gig Executive interim management practice. An experienced interim talent specialist with over 8 years of leadership in cross-functional and sectoral experience, Martin has also been an interim executive himself, ensuring his ability to deliver exceptional results for both clients and candidates.

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