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Universities looking beyond academics when hiring

Published on Saturday, 18 Oct 2014
Jenny Chung

The higher-education sector in Hong Kong has seen a consistent surge in demand for talent, fuelled initially by the larger infrastructure required for the 3-3-4 curriculum and propelled further as universities continue to strive for research and teaching excellence amid strong local and international competition. 

For senior-level hires (department heads or above), the conventional focus on academic and research credentials as key selection criteria prevails. However, universities are increasing looking for additional attributes in potential candidates, who are expected to manage more complex issues and challenges in today’s world. 

One additional quality highly sought-after by higher-education institutions is having a global perspective. Candidates with a demonstrable track record in participating in and managing international research, technology transfer, or teaching- and/or student-exchange programmes, are often viewed more favourably, due to the universal emphasis on the internationalisation of education. 

In the Hong Kong context, as mainland China is an essential component of any university’s internationalisation strategy, having hands-on experience in interacting with mainland universities, research institutes and government agencies will be an additional advantage. 
Another added quality sought after by universities and colleges is the ability to network with stakeholders. 

An integral part of the roles of senior academics and administrators is to interact with a wide spectrum of constituencies – not only within the universities, but also externally, such as with alumni, industry and professional practitioners, politicians, policy makers, government officials, members of the community, and overseas partners. 

The ability to balance and manage different views and interests and influence others is an essential skill. 

Sensitivity to social and political issues is also required. Senior academics are frequently looked upon as key opinion leaders in a wide range of issues concerning public interests, some of which can be highly controversial. It is therefore important these individuals possess a current understanding of the broader community’s concerns and be prepared to interact with the media and members of the public. 

Collaborative and communication skills are a must in this regard. Members of higher-education institutions today are expected to connect more with the community and external partners, and also play a role in helping resolve key problems in society. This, coupled with the rising importance of inter-disciplinary programmes and international collaboration, necessitates the appointment of senior leaders who can communicate effectively and engage with different parties. 

Not all senior administrative roles require the appointment of academics. For example, institutions looking to hire VPs of administration, IT and institutional advancement are increasingly open to considering individuals from the commercial, quasi-government or professional sectors in the recruitment process. 

Appointments of people from non-academic backgrounds can bring new perspectives and ideas to complement the experience of the existing senior management team. 

In summary, soft skills and an ability to bring more diverse and international experience to a university are increasingly important in the higher-education sector. 


Jenny Chung is a partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Hong Kong Office. She specialises in recruiting senior roles in education, life sciences and consumer sectors. Odgers Berndtson is an international executive search firm with over 50 offices in 29 countries.

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