Factors such as market instability and political tensions are making long-term planning difficult for sector managers and signal a challenging year ahead for many operations.
These insights came from a group of senior contacts who took part in our snapshot survey on leadership.
More than 60 leaders, including CEOs, pro-vice chancellors, directors, provosts and edtech entrepreneurs from across 16 countries, all gave their views on current industry trends and what attributes make for good leadership in the higher education sector.
The results revealed that over 92% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that immigration is currently being used as a political lever worldwide, with 44% of respondents saying that geopolitics and macro factors are a major concern.
A majority 24 of our leadership respondents were based in Great Britain, where immigration rules have been under review. In recent weeks, Universities UK International has been repeatedly forced to respond to media speculation about potential changes to student visa rules, and sector leaders have been minded how vulnerable enrolment flows can be in relation to government policy.
Responses such as “geopolitical instability and economic recession” and “political interference” were seen as common threats, with one respondent saying “institutions and governments cannot react fast enough to address the demand” when predicting the biggest challenges for international education in 2023.
Artificial intelligence also emerged high on the agenda, appearing in lists of concerns and opportunities. One respondent explained “the recent rise of AI has the potential for very concerning consequences around both the quality of [university] applications and student performance on courses”.
While AI was mooted as having the potential to ‘undermine’ quality in many parts of educational delivery, others saw the benefits of AI to “support marketing automation” and manage increased levels of demand.
Some 87% of respondents felt that education is being disrupted and will evolve either through technology or new modes of delivery. “Adoption of appropriate technology” and “better hybrid delivery” were given as examples of opportunities to pursue to improve access for students globally.
The highly anticipated “return of China” and the “reopening” of borders was cited as a major opportunity for 2023. In the past few days, China has told students studying remotely in the country that they should now travel to their respective study destinations “as soon as possible”.
Post-pandemic demand and increased global student mobility are being framed as a crucial moment in history that should be acted upon in the survey.
One respondent explained “the world and people have changed” and that there are many “new conversations and connections” to build on for those organisations that want to grow. Indeed, 80% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that public-private partnerships were set to increase this year.
A fascinating insight emerged from our survey results, relating to how leaders retrospectively view the pandemic. A dominant 62% of leaders felt the pandemic had advanced their company goals, with only 34% saying that the disruption had hindered them.
In addition a further 60% felt that the pandemic had advanced their own career goals, with many leaders acknowledging the increased opportunities and connectivity within higher education due to digital innovation.
Strong governance will be essential for businesses and institutions to navigate the many headwinds that were highlighted in the survey such as climate action, demographic cliff edges and increased demand for digital skills amongst graduates.
However the response was mixed when asked if the international education sector attracts good leaders. Only 45% of the leaders who responded felt that the sector attracted and retained talented leadership figures.
A significant 24.6% disagreed, saying the sector did not attract good leaders. When prompted to say what they would change about the higher education industry, one respondent replied saying “I would reduce risk aversion amongst university leaders” and that leaders in the sector often make “irrational choices”.
Another respondent said they would “shift the focus back to student learning – and away from political, financial and competition concerns.”
Vision (59%), resilience (43%) and communication (43%) were scored as the most important qualities associated with ‘good’ leadership. While factors such as personal fulfillment, impact on society and creative freedom all scored more highly than remuneration as motivators to work in the sector.
60% of the leaders who took part in the survey also felt that they had always gravitated towards leadership roles, while the other 40% agreed that they had needed to learn leadership skills as part of their continuing professional development.
Are you a leader in higher education and have concerns about the direction of travel for the industry? Have your say in the comments below or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org