Unease as lion's share of sector's top jobs go to those tipped or recruited by agencies. Melanie Newman reports. The use of higher-education specialist headhunters is so widespread that few vice-chancellors appointed in the past five years were selected without the involvement of one of the UK's top four firms, according to both a Leadership Foundation study and The Times Higher 's own research.
The four companies - Heidrick & Struggles, Odgers Ray & Berntson, Perrett Laver and Saxton Bampfylde Hever - handle the sensitivities of application and rejection, in which "they can pass on the bad news without either side feeling bad", as one vice-chancellor said.
Equally importantly, headhunters can expand the pool of applicants beyond that accessible by advertisements.
Exeter University's Steve Smith and Bristol's Eric Thomas are among heads who say they would not have been appointed had an agency not persuaded them to apply and pressed their case.
"I had been advised that it was too early for me to be looking for vice- chancellor jobs, before Heidrick & Struggles approached me," said Professor Thomas.
Malcolm Grant, president of University College London, said he expected the use of headhunters to grow.
"The vice-chancellorship is the one appointment that the head of the institution can't lead on," he said. "Appointments committees are normally chaired by a lay person without an intimate understanding of the field."
Headhunters are useful to guide the committee, and they have access to individuals with international or business experience who may be unknown to the institution, Professor Grant said.
"Agencies also provide some assurance to the internal community that the institution is casting its net widely," he added.
Liverpool University did not use headhunters when it appointed its own council member, Sir Howard Newby, as successor to Drummond Bone.
Susan Rutherford, human resources director at Liverpool, said: "We aren't opposed to agencies but we were confident that we could get a strong field of applications through advertising."
Michael Brown, vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, was also appointed without the help of headhunters, after three days of interviews with governors, unions and staff.
"The advantage is that everybody in the university feels involved," he said. "But some people wouldn't want it publicly known that they are job- hunting."
Universities that choose not to use headhunters may run the risk of missing out on key contenders who are waiting to be asked to apply for the post, say observers.
All the 13 vice-chancellors questioned by Glynis Breakwell for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education study had been invited to apply, as had most of the 30 heads interviewed by The Times Higher .
"It becomes a point of honour that you won't ring up independently for a job," one said.
While most vice-chancellors said their experience with headhunters was positive, praising them as well-informed and professional, several expressed concerns about their influence.
Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, said: "They tend to reinforce the cycle of 'people like us' and make it more difficult for non-standard candidates."
Another vice-chancellor said he was advised by a colleague not to upset the headhunters as "you may never know when you may need them to call".
He added: "If a small group control most appointments, you run the risk that it is their paradigm that sets long lists - and this may be to the disadvantage of the outsider or the interesting prospect from left field."
If universities used agencies correctly this would be less of a problem. Professor Breakwell's report, which will be discussed at the Leadership Foundation's symposium in February, found that the inexperience of appointing committees means they do not always make best use of headhunters.
One vice-chancellor told The Times Higher : "Appointing committees and headhunters can get lines of responsibility mixed up. Some committees think headhunters are responsible for appointing. They aren't; their job is to provide a field to choose from."
In other cases, the agency may field a diverse list to a committee that has a fixed idea about what it needs. "The process is directed by a group who may only know what they want 'intuitively' or via stereotypes," Professor Breakwell said.
One vice-chancellor complained that an agency had insisted on including the vice-chancellor's name on a long list for a job at a pre-92 institution.
"I've twice been rung up by headhunters offering jobs in a pre-92 and I have asked them to check whether the university would accept somebody from a post-92," the vice-chancellor said. "Both times they've had to admit the university is not interested."
Another vice-chancellor recalled receiving approaches by headhunters for "at least a dozen jobs" in post-92s, but none in a pre-92 institution.
"If they have a fixed perception of what constitutes a vice-chancellor, they will exclude a significant proportion of the potential market," the vice-chancellor said.
Professor Breakwell suggested that guidelines on using agencies effectively could be drawn up.
The Leadership Foundation is currently running seminars on succession planning and how to deal with headhunters.
THE KINGMAKERS AND THE CROWNED
- Saxton Bampfylde Hever
- Steve Smith, Exeter University
- John Hood, Oxford University
- Alan Gilbert, Manchester University
- Patricia Broadfoot, Gloucestershire University
- Odgers Ray & Berntson
- Julia Goodfellow, Kent University
- Robin Baker, Chichester University
- Sir John O'Reilly, Cranfield University
- Gerald Pillay, Liverpool Hope University
- Heidrick & Struggles
- Malcolm Grant, University College London
- Eric Thomas, Bristol University
- Kel Fidler, North-umbria University
- Stephen Hill, Royal Holloway, University of London
- Perrett Laver
- Janet Beer, Oxford Brookes University
- Michael Arthur, Leeds University
- New players
- Tribal Group, KMC International, Veredus, Rockpools.