Poachers seek university gamekeepers

Fear of losing top managers looms large in UK sector’s world of worries. David Matthews reports

August 1, 2013

Universities are increasingly fearful that their senior managers will be poached by institutions elsewhere in the world, according to an analysis of risks to the academy.

The consultancy Deloitte looked at the risk registers of 20 institutions, ranging from small specialists to large universities, and found that they see significantly more threats on the horizon than last year.

In April 2012, fewer than one in five institutions had “senior management risk” on the radar, but a year later more than 60 per cent saw it as a major threat.

Richard Evans, a general manager at Deloitte Public Sector Internal Audit, said “competition for the leadership is growing” with other universities across the world. The widely admired UK sector is a natural hunting ground for foreign institutions, for example in Australia, keen to poach top managers, he said.

The rise in the perception of “senior management risk” also referred to the danger of having a weak vice-chancellor or senior team in place just as the academy is in a period of flux, Mr Evans said.

“The big problems in UK institutions come down to governance,” he argued. “If the right person isn’t at the top it has an impact through the whole institution.”

About seven in ten institutions listed “international strategy” as a risk in 2013, compared with three in 10 a year ago. Universities are increasingly thinking about their partnerships, branch campuses and other ventures outside the UK, Mr Evans said, and were more worried about the risk of not internationalising.

In the past, individual academics tended to strike up global collaborations on their own, but universities were now “working out what everyone’s up to” and looking to direct activity more strategically, he said.

More than half of universities now list “IT and infrastructure” as a risk, and some of this concern related to cybersecurity and the theft of confidential research or personal data, Mr Evans said. Universities needed to look to “the corporate sector [which] has a real focus on cybersecurity”.

Since April 2012, when it was listed as a risk by one in three universities, concern about the UK Border Agency has rocketed. (The body was abolished in March and its visa-issuing role has been taken over by the Home Office).

With the suspension of London Metropolitan University’s licence to sponsor international students in August 2012 (it was reinstated in April of this year), almost all the institutions Deloitte surveyed listed “UKBA” as a risk.

This showed that the sector was “quite reactive”, Mr Evans said. “It’s not getting ahead of the game.”

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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