Using headhunters to select would-be university leaders could lead to the "deskilling" of the higher education sector, a professor of higher education management has warned.
Sir David Watson, the chair of higher education management in the department of lifelong and comparative education at the Institute of Education, has said that headhunting firms had initially helped the sector by widening the pool of applicants for top jobs and by professionalising recruitment.
But in a paper published in Engage, the newsletter of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, he says: "Subsequently, the positive effects have worn off and damaging side-effects have emerged."
Sir David says the outsourcing of responsibility for senior recruitment risked causing "intellectual and even moral laziness".
Headhunters promise confidentiality to applicants, which means that individuals who would otherwise be reluctant to apply for new posts are more willing to do so. The downside, Sir David says, is that candidates are prevented from making "any real assessment of the nature and condition of the institution they would be expected to run" and are kept away from the staff they would have to lead.
"This may not help the institution as a whole to choose the best potential leader ... and it certainly doesn't help the candidate to choose the institution," he writes.
Sir David analysed Times Higher Education advertisements placed in 2006-07 by executive search agencies. He found that 30 agencies had advertised 152 posts, with the Perrett Laver Partnership responsible for 22 per cent of these, followed by Heidrick & Struggles with 12 per cent.
He called on the sector to "just say no" to headhunters and to create a "shared sense of responsibility" for recruitment across institutions.
Research published this year by Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, suggested that reliance on a small group of headhunters when seeking vice-chancellors could limit institutions' choices. She warned that the practice "clearly has the potential to generate an inward-looking, self- perpetuating hierarchy".
None of the headhunting firms contacted by Times Higher Education was prepared to comment.