Degree Name

Doctor of Business Administration


Sydney Business School


Australian universities are in a precarious position: they face an array of challenges that could potentially affect their sustainability. Globally there are concerns that the aging population and aging workforce, are leading to a scarcity of quality talent. This in turn has repercussions for the higher education sector in the long term. When the full effects of the aging academic workforce collide with the effects of the diminishing academic pool and the forces of globalisation, Australian universities may not be able to meet their workforce needs.

The purpose of this study is to gain a comprehensive understanding of how Australian universities recruit and select their senior academic leaders. Further, it will explore if there are factors affecting the recruitment and selection process, and if so, what they are, and what can be done to address them.

A multiple case-study methodology was used adopting a constructivist-interpretivist paradigm. Ten case studies were chosen from the 39 Australian universities and three executive search firms also participated. This multiple case-study approach allowed the researcher to explore the views of individuals, activities, processes and events that comprehensively describe the recruitment and selection of senior academic leaders.

The study’s findings raise concerns across a number of areas in relation to the recruitment and selection of senior academic leaders. In particular Australian universities’ fixation with rating high in world research rankings and Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA); therefore their key criteria when recruiting and selecting senior academic leaders are having a PhD and an outstanding research profile. Whilst there is nothing wrong with a university aspiring to have an exemplary research profile, there is less attention paid to quality learning and teaching and leadership when recruiting senior academic leaders. This is a concern, as Australian universities are facing growing competition for staff and students from within Australia and overseas. Therefore it is vital that they have effective leaders in place and remain competitive across all facets of higher education, including research, learning and teaching and the student experience.

Undoubtedly, the most concerning finding of this study is that Australian universities are not preparing for workforce challenges. There is a perception that there is an endless supply of quality senior academics from overseas and that Australian universities will continue to be in a prime position to recruit and select whomever they want. There appears to have been no risk assessment of what will happen if Australia becomes a less attractive destination in which to work, or what will happen when the full forces of aging and globalisation strike. No university participant had good examples of workforce planning. Succession planning has not been a priority for universities, and no participant university had established pipelines of academics coming through to senior leadership positions.

Another interesting finding is Australian universities’ heavy reliance on executive search firms to recruit their senior academic leaders. Each university wants to increase their research profile, and thus seeks to appoint high-calibre researchers. This often means through the use of executive search, poaching staff from other universities in Australia, or, in many cases, recruiting from overseas.