2023 Universities Australia Conference - What's News in Talent? - Gig Executive

2023 Universities Australia Conference – What’s News in Talent?

Higher Education – Sector Update November 2022

Universities Australia Conference 2023:

A Take on Talent

Insights by Andrew Norton and Martin Searle

‘Australia’s universities are key to meeting our workforce needs.’

These words resonated, spoken by Universities Australia Chair, Professor John Dewar AO at the recent Universities Australia Conference in Canberra.

The intersection between government, business and education stakeholders can ensure our safety, success, and prosperity as a nation. Universities bolster Australia’s global position via the provision of future-ready graduates, significant export income, and the hotbed of research and development so critical to a more complex and resilient economy.

A highlight of the Universities Australia Conference 2023 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.

Our world-class universities attract hundreds of thousands of international students each year, yet very few of them remain here after they graduate. Our current ‘skills crisis’ has revealed a collaboration gap between educational institutions, the government and the business community that has resulted in a leadership gap impacting Australia’s position on the global scale.

What can higher education institutions do to future-proof Australia’s talent in both capability and capacity?

Andrew Norton has placed leading academics and institutional leaders in top Universities across the APAC region for over a decade. Martin Searle also has deep experience placing Higher Education talent, especially in the interim talent space. Together, Andrew and Martin attended the Universities Australia Conference and have put together a tidy list of key capabilities every higher education institution should consider elevating, or attracting, to their leadership table:

Ethics, engagement, and cultural literacy

At the conference, Professor Megan Davis delivered a keynote highlighting the importance of the Voice Referendum and the need for continued focus on Indigenous engagement and improved student outcomes. Access to, and retention of, Indigenous talent on staff remains a priority for many universities. A heightened cultural awareness of the systems and processes inherent in educational establishments must be reimagined for cultural literacy. Disability is seen as a core component of diversity and the requirement for more active and inclusive strategies to level student participation were called out. “Levelling up” generally has become a key focus area for the sector and regional universities in particular are working to improve student engagement to offset disadvantages impacted by location and isolation. There is a growing consensus around the imperative to support greater access and participation for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

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.

Systems thinking and technology literacy

Conference delegates acknowledged the sector requires a national system of student data capture over the entire student lifecycle to drive improved student completions, outcomes, and lifelong learning opportunities. The panellists raised the projection that more than nine in ten new jobs will require post-school qualifications, and fifty per cent of new jobs are expected to require a bachelor’s degree or higher. In parallel, the conference content repeatedly emphasised the 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. Strategic partnerships are required to secure the future of the Australian research pipeline and enable university projects life beyond the lab to catalyse social change and keep talent onshore.

We see the tech literacy gap play out across Australia’s boards more broadly, with the AICD reporting that only 12% of directors are STEM literate, despite 85% of Australia’s GDP being technology enabled. Among the fastest-growing technology skills employed by university leadership teams in the past 12 months are Python (20% growth), Artificial Intelligence (19% growth), and Machine Learning (16% growth). How might the business sector and university sectors work together to transfer commercial acumen and STEM literacy?

Adaptability, innovation and creativity

Within the current emerging environment, there is no doubt that higher education is riding the wave of creative disruption. An immense opportunity exists to build a more competitive and resilient international education sector. The conference demonstrated the highly constructive relationship across the sector with the new government and Education Minister Jason Clare. Pro-active institutions are working to innovate ways to provide improved support (particularly for international students), throughout their student life cycle, with a particular emphasis on employability post-study. Demographic change, delegates heard, means that by 2030 the school leaver cohort will increase by 20%, placing greater competitive pressure on students for placements. Adapting the full digitisation of learning to enable greater flexibility to support the work\study balance, the remote student experience, and maximum utilisation of university resources (while recognising the disadvantages associated with internet bandwidth) is high on the agenda.

Strong communication and creativity will be required to ensure the off-campus experience enables a community of belonging. When it comes to the ‘human skills’ that can build a more resilient and innovative higher education ecosystem, our data tells us that 10% of university leaders consider ‘entrepreneurship’ a professional capability. Similarly, ‘stakeholder management’ sits at 10%. While the data is not definitive, recognition and amplification of these capabilities will become paramount to leadership teams.

Planning for emerging challenges requires a leadership capability lens.

Underpinning each of these areas is the challenge of workforce planning. Certainly, an undercurrent at the conference saw delegates quick to recognise the effects of generational change with the increased number of senior academics exiting the workforce placing greater focus on succession planning and leadership development.


Fisher Leadership has placed over 500 senior leaders in Higher Education over the past few decades. We are already trusted advisors when it comes to understanding the capabilities needed to best serve an institution depending on the strategic challenges they face. Increasingly, we recognise that these emerging challenges are dynamic, frequently changing and requiring rapid leadership response. That’s why we partner with Gig Executive, our associated interim brand designed to place our pre-vetted senior talent in the shorter term, enabling organisations to scale their capability and capacity at pace.

Andrew Norton leads Fisher Executive’s Education Practice on Higher Education.
Andrew leads practices in the higher education, vocational education and government sectors, appointing and supporting senior executives, academics and board directors. Andrew has built enduring networks at a national and international level, and is highly respected as a trusted advisor to clients and candidates alike.
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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