Dean Forbes


Australian International Education Conference, Brisbane 
10 October 2008

Professor Dean Forbes
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)
Flinders University

Leadership can be a challenging and contentious issue in universities.  Nevertheless, sustaining  Australia’s growing international education industry means fostering and developing the next generation of leaders.

A plethora of programs are available in North America and Europe to improve the professional international education skills of university staff.  A small proportion explicitly deal with leadership.

Speaking as a prospective consumer of the leadership programs, the content has never seemed to include the kind of skills that I thought I needed to develop.  The programs I have looked at reflect a particular view of international education in universities.  Invariably there is coverage of important themes such as internationalisation of the campus, student mobility, collaborative links and the kind of worthy teaching and learning issues to which provosts devote their careers.  

All well and good.  But leaders need the skills to lead, and not to just do their jobs more effectively.  There is a difference.

Universities must aspire to have a pool of people on leadership pathways from whom they select the next generation of leaders.  Future leaders need to be drawn from both sides of the outdated binary divide between general and academic staff in universities.

The leadership group on which we must focus is composed of two groups.  The DVC/PVC, and International Office and Faculty staff in management roles, on the one hand.  On the other hand the informal leaders in central administrations and Faculties  who are often the people with aspirations to be managers and leaders.  

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So what do they need to know about leading a university’s international education?   

Their skill needs includes a solid understanding of how international education functions, encompassing the various components of the kind I referred to earlier.  I won’t elaborate.   

In addition there are at least three themes on content that I want to focus upon.  

First, leadership programs need to give attention to the kind of business and financial skills that are an increasingly important responsibility of middle and senior management in universities.  

Leaders need to know more than how to prepare and monitor budgets.  They need a good grasp of the business skills that will ultimately underpin the sustainability of international education.  Australian universities are at the forefront in this area, because of our focus on international student recruitment and transnational education.  However, there is considerable room for improvement, particularly as universities expect more sophisticated financial approaches to their commercial activities.  

The current financial crisis which began on Wall St worsened considerably this week.  It underlines the extreme risks of managing complex financial arrangements.

Second, programs rarely analyse the essence of global leadership, and particularly the kinds of soft skills that are essential in a global environment.  

The Karpin Report, released in 1995, argued strongly that Australian business leaders needed to understand the changing leadership and management skills needed to successfully engage in the global economy.  But I have a sense that Karpin’s message has been diluted, and sometimes lost altogether.

This is not the case in other parts of the world.  Earlier this year I visited the Satyam School of Leadership, a part of Satyam Computing Services, based in Hyderabad.  Ed Cohen, formerly strategic leader of Booz Allen Hamilton’s corporate university in Northern Virginia, showed me the facility.  It is brand new, purpose built, large and extremely well equipped.  It is located on the Satyam ‘campus’ in one of Hyderabad’s several high-tech suburbs.  

Cohen realised that the leadership techniques he had used in America would not work in the new kind of global environment in which he was now located.   “Today’s leaders live and work in countries other than their home country, manage multinational teams, and have customers from all over the globe” (Cohen 2007 p 3). 

He embarked upon a Global Leadership Survey to hear the views of 50 or so world business leaders about the core characteristics of leadership.  Nine significant characteristics of global business leaders were identified.  Some were expressed as folksy wisdom.  A mother’s advice, for instance: “son, you’ve been given two ears and [only] one mouth for a reason” (p 24).  Many leadership characteristics were of the generic kind: curiosity about the world is an example (p 22).  Another telling observation was “They [leaders] fear stagnation more than taking risks”(p 28).  

Many of us have some of the key leadership traits he identified.  But “what sets global leaders apart is that they exhibit a broader spectrum of these traits” (p 19). 

We must step up how we prepare our future leaders if we are to compete globally.  It goes without saying, all current and prospective university leaders in Australia need these kinds of skills, not just those in international education.  But it is up to us in international education to lead the way.

Third, leadership programs need to foster:
an ability to imagine the future of the university
strategies for international educators to bring this about
approaches to managing the consequences,
methods of selling the message 

Few people have innate skills in all of these areas.  Moreover, the soft skills and creative thinking required are difficult to get a handle on, and to teach.  I note that our colleagues in the humanities are currently selling themselves as the wellspring of creative thinking in universities. 

As universities change, they will expect different things from international education.  For example, Australian universities are increasingly anxious to expand and deepen their international research collaboration efforts.  Staff from international education will be increasingly expected to work closely with research support offices to build and sustain these links, and this will require new knowledge and skills.

Another area of focused growth requiring input from international educators is likely to be development oriented service learning and community engagement in the poorer parts of Africa and Asia. Such initiatives are currently relatively small scale and often ad hoc arrangements, but as Australian universities successfully position themselves in the global knowledge economy there will be many who expect them to give back more than they currently do.

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Finally, how do we go about developing the pool of leadership talent that will be required in Australian universities?   The kind of executive seminar series being discussed between the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) and the L.H. Martin Institute is an important initiative. Our strategy must take into account the specific needs and capabilitiess of those who want to develop their leadership skills.  In particular,  it must recognise the significant non-formal learning adopted in universities.  For example:

     The research and reflection of the auto didact;
     The informal mentoring and coaching, of which there is less than there should be;
     The peer learning which occurs through professional associations and groups.  Since its creation in 1998 the members of the Universities Australia DVC I committee have been enormously important in shaping my understanding of the leadership role in international education.

I conclude with the observation that the leadership pool in Australian international education will be disproportionately drawn from the people with the ability to front for a 9.00am seminar the morning after the conference dinner.  Congratulations.

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The Boston Consulting Group (1995) Report of the Industry Task Force on Leadership and Management Skills (the Karpin Report)

Cohen, Ed 2007 Leadership Without Borders: Successful Strategies From World-Class Leaders, John Wiley & Sons, Singapore.