Universities are currently fretting over the seemingly inevitable gaps in next academic year’s finances. In the short term, staff recruitment is one obvious locus for cost constraint. Beyond the financial drive to slow or stop recruitment there are the practical matters of assembling interview panels, making appointment decisions, connecting new staff to university systems and the more existential question of whether they can usefully begin working remotely. However, at some stage, large employers like universities will return to something more like normal operating circumstances. Will recruitment decisions be shaped by different priorities post-lockdown?
Before answering this, it is important to make two observations. First, COVID-19 is extracting a terrible human cost from society. Our staff and student populations are experiencing anxiety, loss and isolation in the same way as everyone else. Second, the speculations expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of either the Chartered Association of Business Schools or of Heriot-Watt University.
The most obvious pedagogical consequence of lockdown has been the wholesale switch to online supported learning. A few pioneering universities have been engaged in online learning at scale for some time. Many more have been quietly contemplating the balance of online and face-to-face learning for several years. Suddenly however, the whole sector has moved further and faster than anyone would have thought possible. When campuses do reopen, there will be far greater emphasis on online literacy in the recruitment process. Previously at an interview you may have encountered one or two random early adopters of this new fangled technology. Examples of innovation that I’ve encountered when interviewing have included the use of online polls, flipped classrooms, webinars, etc. Though not particularly revolutionary, such examples have tended to be reasonably well received. Going forward, everyone on the panel will likely have completed a “how to teach online” course offered by their own institution’s learning and teaching specialists or a third party provider. Being seen as an online enthusiast, innovator or expert will be both more important and more demanding for interviewees.
In selecting new members of your university’s academic community, there’s an allure to marrying upwards. Recruiting early career academics from the best schools, preferably once they’ve been supervised to doctoral standard by the world’s leading scholars, is a familiar pattern. It promises a low-cost way to cross pollinate world-leading research culture with your own, perhaps less esteemed but no less ambitious culture. Research networks may matter even more since the ways in which such relationships can be nurtured in a post-COVID19 environment may change. The familiar practice of networking with leading thinkers at conferences was already under question in terms of environmental consequences. Now there are new reasons to worry about such mass gatherings. Coming with a pre-formed research network will make you an attractive candidate. Demonstrating the digital skills to build and expand that network will make you even more attractive.
It is striking that the university sector has resisted the kinds of consolidation and extinction events that have characterised other industries from retail to financial services and beyond. If you can access the best minds from the best institutions digitally, why would you go to your local, mid-ranked university? The answer may be a new localism. This must not be confused with parochialism. Many universities pride themselves on their civic mission and descriptions of them as anchor tenants or engines of their local economy are often hard earned. Few organisations are better placed to reach out into their local community to provide knowledge, skills, research and training. Both local and national governments will rarely have been in greater need of help in nurturing local economies and talk of levelling up will likely be taken up with renewed vigour. Knowing your local environment, creating and leveraging relationships within that local environment could go from being a perceived weakness in candidates to a source of real competitive advantage. Would an ivy league import be able to find their feet as quickly in your university’s community of public, private, family and charitable organisations? Maybe it’s a time for a new breed of local heroes. Those who can combine international excellence with local economic impact are likely to be in high demand.
NB. A version of this article appeared in Times Higher Education on 12 May 2020 and can be found here.