Tim Fitzsimmons, previous Head of Communications at Australian Catholic University took the time to provide his insights on what it’s like to be a leader in the Education sector and offers some valuable advice.
What were the major drivers for you to move into the Education sector? Was it a conscious decision?
I’d have to say I’ve never been more satisfied professionally than when I worked in the education sector. That in itself says a lot because I’ve had some pretty incredible opportunities in my career.
Working in education gave me a chance to feed my own curiosity and work with like-minded people. But most important of all, it gave me an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.
As a trusted partner and marketer, I had a chance to help colleagues secure support for their academic research and share their expertise with students.
As a leader, I had a chance to build people and teams up, empowering them to reach their potential.
What advice would you give to someone seeking to move into the Education space?
As a hiring manager in the education space, I was always looking for learning animals to join my teams – people who had an insatiable curiosity, a commitment to self-improvement, and a knack for helping others. If you can demonstrate that then you’re off to a good start!
When starting your search, it’s worth looking at the whole sector – not just universities. My career journey into education started out with TAFE – and I loved every minute of it!
Also, enrol in further education. It speaks volumes about your personal commitment to self-improvement and understanding the education business.
And finally, talk to people already in the education sector.
What do you think is important to consider when applying for roles?
I could say culture, finances, and leadership.
And while I think all of these are important, I’d say take a close look at the things that directly affect your experience in the job. That includes:
- The day-to-day work you’ll be doing
- The hiring manager
- The people you will be working with most – others in your immediate team or your group of internal clients.
If any of these things don’t feel right, then it’s probably not the right role for you – no matter how great the organisation is.
What were the challenges/opportunities in your role as Head of Communications at Australian Catholic University?
As Head of Communications at ACU, I had some fantastic opportunities.
My top three would have to be:
- Being a key member of the team that drove a major rebrand of ACU to improve the University's market position in a highly competitive sector.
- Producing a 20 percent increase in employee satisfaction and improving engagement among ACU’s 2,500 employees by leading the adoption of a new internal communications platform called Workplace by Facebook as part of my internal communications strategy
- Reshaping and assembling a crack team of communicators to a. enhance how ACU communicates internally, and b. to boost the University's public/media profile.
How did you overcome these challenges?
The challenging part of delivering big changes like these is that it takes time.
ACU is a large-ish organisation with lots of stakeholders. It takes a lot of patience, determination, and empathy with colleagues to get the best possible outcomes.
Can you talk to the nuances of working in ‘a Head of’ position in Education system?
Publicly funded educational institutions are like no other organisation I’ve worked in.
They are this peculiar combination of an intellectual collective, a multimillion-dollar commercial enterprise, and a community drop-in centre.
As fascinating as this is, it does mean that publicly funded educational institutions are constantly being pushed and pulled in different directions. As a Head of Communications, you have to navigate this tension too.
You’ve got to manage a lot of different stakeholders and ideas of what the institution should do and say.
What did you enjoy most about your role and your time at ACU?
I was fortunate to work with a whole host of extremely talented people – both my ACU colleagues and people I engaged on projects. That’s what I enjoyed most about the job.
How does it compare to your previous experience?
I’ve been fortunate to work with some top people over the course of my career, including at TAFE, where, as I mentioned, my journey into the education sector began.
The four-year investment I made at ACU, meant that I was able to develop an in-depth understanding of the higher education ‘business’.
What are the main factors Universities need to consider given recent funding freezes?
It’s a big issue, especially for universities that have been reliant on federal government bachelor-degree funding.
And it doesn’t just impact the number of bachelor-degree students universities can afford to take. That’s because it’s common for universities to use this income source to fund some of their other activities – like research which is critical to their academic reputation.
So, what options do universities have?
- Make tough decisions about investment priorities and structure operating budgets accordingly
- Discontinue under subscribed/low demand courses
- Increase enrollments elsewhere (eg – international students either onshore or offshore delivery, full-fee-paying domestic students, executive education or short courses)
- Reduce student attrition rates by identifying, targeting and delivering to market segments that they can viably compete for and retain
- Ask for more donations to help fund research
- Develop more research partnerships with governments and business.
Whichever direction universities choose to take it’ll require an investment in the right people, whether that’s in:
- Market insights
- Product/customer experience development
- Digital marketing
- Media and PR
- Donor development
- Partnerships and government relations.
Any comments you would like to share about your experience with Six Degrees Executive?
Six Degrees Executive helped me assemble the all-star communications team I needed at ACU.
When I was competing against Australia’s biggest universities for public attention, what I needed was a larger media-savvy team of people that could really help the University punch above its weight.
Six Degrees Executive pulled out all the stops to find them for me.
Building the team that I did, meant ACU was often able to outperform much larger and more well-known competitors.
Like all hiring managers, I want the best. But I also want my candidates to have the best possible experience – no matter what the final outcome is. And that’s what Six Degrees Executive does for all of its candidates.