Universities Australia has poached fellow lobby group ATN Universities’ leader Luke Sheehy to be its new chief executive from next year, as the sector braces for major changes and mounting scrutiny.
Mr Sheehy, who has led the Australian Technology Network since 2019, will replace outgoing Universities Australia (UA) chief Catriona Jackson, who was reportedly ousted by the peak group’s vice chancellors earlier this year and will depart this week.
The shakeup at the top of Australia’s university lobbying groups comes as the Universities Accord process portends major reforms, the migration system takes aim at international students, and policymakers question the sector’s response to sexual violence.
Universities Australia represents the 39 comprehensive universities in lobbying government, public communications and co-ordinating joint activities.
Ms Jackson has been at the helm since 2018, during which time research funding has been in steady decline and the pandemic disrupted the sector’s increasingly important revenue source of international students.
In August, Deakin vice-chancellor Professor Iain Martin reportedly sent a letter to UA chair Professor David Lloyd, copying in other vice chancellors and questioning Ms Jackson’s response to the Senate’s questioning about sexual violence on campuses.
Ms Jackson had told the Senate there would be a sector-wide Respect at Uni Week despite the institutions not agreeing to one. Universities later had to opt in for similar activities rather than the promised sector-wide event.
The incident prompted further scrutiny of Australia’s universities that were already under pressure for not doing enough to combat sexual violence.
Vice Chancellors then met to discuss Ms Jackson’s role and in October she announced her retirement, triggering a search for a new chief executive.
On Tuesday, UA announced Mr Sheehy would take the top job from February.
“He knows the sector well and comes with demonstrated skills and a strong track record of working across the political aisle and with industry bodies to advocate the interests of universities,” UA chair Professor Lloyd said in a statement.
“His skills and knowledge will be of immense benefit to UA as we continue to work with government to foster an environment in which universities can continue delivering for the nation.”
Professor Lloyd thanked Ms Jackson, who he said had “done an outstanding job of leading UA and leaves the organisation in a strong position”.
Mr Sheehy takes the reigns at the peak group just as a final report likely to recommend major reforms is being handed to government.
The Universities Accord process has already triggered changes to improve access and governance while undoing controversial Morrison government sector rules through an interim report in July.
But the final report is canvassing more radical ideas like an international student levy that the sector is strongly opposed to.
The Albanese government’s new migration strategy has also taken aim at an explosion in international student numbers since pandemic border restrictions eased and Morisson government visa changes made it easier for students to work in Australia.
Universities are also opposed to a new cap on international students, which have become a revenue source they need to offset the cost of research not directly funded by government.
But Immigration minister Clare O’Neil and Education minister Jason Clare won’t rule them out.
With big reforms looming, Mr Sheehy said he will bring “energy and enthusiasm” to the sector’s key lobby group.
“As the first member of my family to graduate from university, I know first-hand the power of education to transform lives and I am driven to ensure that opportunity is provided to as many people as possible,” Mr Sheehy said.
“I bring with me to UA a deep passion for higher education and will use my role to advocate for the policies and funding our sector needs to ensure we can educate more Australians and continue undertaking game-changing research.”
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