Universities are for the first time calling in professional headhunters to help recruit academics for positions such as research professorships and faculty heads, The Times Higher can reveal.
Once called on only for the appointment of vice-chancellors, search and selection firms are now being deployed on an unprecedented scale to deal with a range of senior academic posts as institutions fight to secure the best people in an increasingly competitive market.
Headhunters say that the impending research assessment exercise, scheduled for 2008, is forcing universities to think again about the structure of their institutions and the quality of senior academic staff.
The use of headhunters also signals the changing recruitment needs of the sector, with the onus on management as well as academic experience.
Universities want high-impact professors to strengthen their research profile, but also deans with leadership skills to drive through change in their departments and to develop funding models to secure cash from external sources.
Advertisements placed in last week's Times Higher by Adderley Featherstone for a new director of sports development at Aberdeen University, and Heidrick and Struggles for the appointment of three deans at Teesside University are the latest examples of the growing trend. Imperial College and Kings College London have also recently employed executive search firms to hire new deans.
Imogen Wilde, head of the education practice at executive recruitment firm Norman Broadbent, said: "These are crucial appointments given the funding that is attached to research."
She added: "By definition, the most successful people are likely to be doing well in their job and may not be looking for a move. The purpose of using a search firm is to find and approach these people."
Heidrick and Struggles has recently placed six deans of a school or faculty in UK universities. Gill Lewis, the firm's head of education said: "Salary can be a problem, particularly in the US. But one of the things that has been most striking is that the majority of people in these roles are generally not motivated by money."
Alex Ackland, a higher education specialist at executive search firm Odgers Ray and Berndtson, said the trend for placing chair and dean of faculty positions through recruitment firms could lead to whole research teams being poached by headhunters.
He said: "There is no doubt that if universities want to stay at the top in research, they will have to spend money in the area, potentially moving whole teams around. It is cash that is driving the market."
Alex Stewart, a senior consultant at Saxton Bampfylde Hever, agreed:
"Particularly with senior scientists it is quite possible that part of a deal could be the relocation of a research team."
Mr Ackland argued that headhunters had the resources to track down people who a university might never find - including those who never scanned the recruitment advertising pages. He said: "I am looking for a dean and that involves mapping out every senior person in that discipline in six or seven countries. I've got a researcher who has worked full time on this for a couple of months."
While senior administrative positions are often filled by candidates from outside the sector, deans and research chairs invariably come from academia.