Alarm at lack of players in v-c hiring

Research raises concerns over use of headhunters to recruit vice-chancellors. Melanie Newman reports

November 30, 2007

Universities’ reliance on a small group of headhunters when seeking new vice-chancellors may be creating a limited pool for top jobs, new research suggests.

Four executive search agencies dominate vice-chancellor recruitment. They identify potential candidates by asking sources, including serving vice- chancellors, to make recommendations.

Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of Bath University, has researched the characteristics and selection of vice-chancellors and said that the process “clearly has the potential to generate an inward-looking, self- perpetuating hierarchy”.

She told The Times Higher : “I’m not criticising the way the headhunters operate, but they are using a relatively small number of influential sources, resulting in a limited pool of information.”

Professor Breakwell, who carried out the research for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, studied vice-chancellors in post between 1997 and 2006 and found they were an average of 57 years old, most were white and just 15 per cent were women.

Most had moved within the same class of universities: pre-92 universities did not tend to recruit from post-92s. “There have been no radical changes in the socio-demographic characteristics of vice-chancellors in the past decade,” she said.

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, is researching changes in academic recruitment processes since the 1980s and says headhunters’ shortlists have created a “competitive waiting room”.

He said the population of the “waiting room” was becoming less diverse, with the typical occupant being a 55-year-old pro vice-chancellor scientist from an old university. “Some of the more interesting potential candidates - younger, female, connected with newer academic and professional areas - are less frequently prepared to play,” he said.

The Equality Challenge Unit is planning to scrutinise diversity and headhunting. ECU chief executive Nicola Dandridge said that concerns had been raised about a lack of transparency.

Alex Ackland from search firm Heidrick & Struggles said that he was aware of the criticism and was working to address it.

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