The lure of commerce: Do universities face a brain drain?

The commercial education sector has changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years. The explosion of aggregators onto the scene, the emergence of outsourcing of universities’ overseas operations and the proliferation of pathway programmes globally are all manifestations of this change.

This huge expansion in both activity and organisations has culminated in a talent grab, with commercial organisations on the hunt for those within higher education who can facilitate the growth of their businesses globally.

There has been a growth in high-powered advisers and advisory boards with ApplyBoard, Leverage Edu and others tapping higher education think tank leaders, government advisers and education media founders. The terms of the appointments are rarely very clear and they sometimes come with explicit expectations around growing the company’s business.

But more recently there have been several individuals jumping ship from universities to take high-profile positions with commercial organisations which are gaining traction with universities.

Higher education diaspora

Among the higher education diaspora are Rachel MacSween who moved from the University of York, where she was director of international recruitment, partnerships and mobility, to a position as director of client partnerships for UK and Europe at IDP Connect.

Others include Kyle Campbell who went from a position as senior web and digital content manager at Nottingham Trent University to content marketing manager at UniBuddy and is now heading his own education marketing business; and Lydiah Igweh, former enterprise support director for Oxford Brookes University who moved to a post as head of equality, diversity and inclusion at Kaplan.

There are also Rick Canavan who moved from the post of faculty head of international at Manchester Metropolitan to director of UK university partnerships at upGrad; Veronica Omeni, former acting co-director at the Centre for Global Engagement at Coventry University, who is now a principal consultant at QS Quacquarelli Symonds; and Gareth Topp, former head of internationalisation at the University of Brighton who left for the role of director of business development for UK and Europe at EduCo Accelerate.

Defections from the very top level are rarer, but recently retired University of Birmingham vice-chancellor Professor Sir David Eastwood moved promptly into a position as director at INTO University Partnerships, and David Pilsbury became chief development officer at Oxford International Education Group after holding the deputy vice-chancellor international role at Coventry University.

Greener pastures?

Colleagues working for a wide range of higher education service providers will be familiar with the cold breeze of slight disapproval that sometimes comes from those working in universities.

Engaging in the commercial side of education has historically been seen as subordinate to the high ideals of teaching and research, although international engagement with recruitment agents has long been a grey area where necessity triumphed over disdain.

The change in thinking was particularly apparent with the buzz recently at The PIE Live in London at the end of March 2022, when there was a feeling in the air that people were exploring what they perceived as greener grass outside their existing university position.

The reality is that commercial service providers, with the possible exception of technocrats in IT or other professional areas, have struggled to negotiate the labyrinthine structures, committees and power politics that make up university management and the bureaucracy associated with decision-making.

By employing ‘insiders’, commercial education organisations are betting that their existing professional relationships and knowing ‘how to play the game’ internally within universities will give them an added advantage when winning future business.

The logic is sound because those who have worked within the sector for the majority of their careers and built networks will have up-to-date rolodexes and relationships with those at both the institution from which they have moved and peer universities.

What remains to be seen is whether the sector will be more welcoming to these people having ‘jumped ship’, or will those who have crossed over find that they are considered to have turned their back on old friends for ‘greener pastures’?

What also remains to be seen is whether the commercial organisations stripping universities of talent are in fact getting a good deal. Are those who have come from inside higher education institutions in possession of the commercial acumen to get the job done or will they find that they miss the relatively cosy world of higher education?

One thing is for sure: the commercial education sector is much less forgiving when targets are missed and objectives not met.

Talent loss

The other serious concern is where this trend might leave universities over the longer term, particularly if the much prized but troubled Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) conditions continue to deteriorate.

University perks, flexibility and long-term outlooks have always been a significant advantage for attracting and retaining talent while commercial organisations are generally more driven by the bottom line and immediate results.

As commercial providers have held increasing sway over the sector and universities have had to focus on their financial sustainability and external performance measures, the lines have become increasingly blurred.

The question is whether there will be a tipping point leading to a significant exodus of university talent which might leave the sector bereft of innovation, creativity and energy.

Universities will need the brightest and the best more than ever to negotiate the choppy seas ahead and if the flow to commercial businesses becomes a deluge there could be some big gaps in capability.

Risks on the horizon

Some notable risks on the horizon include increasing competition among English-speaking study destinations and emerging study destinations, uncertainty over global geodemographics, politics and student mobility and a growing diversity in higher education delivery through both transnational education and online.

The days when a good graduate might look to a university as a place to build a long-term – potentially whole life – career are probably rapidly diminishing and the growth of commercial alternatives will begin to look increasingly attractive.

With these headwinds in mind, it may be time for university leaders and human resources departments to give some real thought to the ways in which they attract, recruit and retain sharp minds that have a genuine focus on brilliant student experiences, relevant research and the right balance of local and global engagement.

Failure to do so will lead to a brain drain that could result in even greater changes in the way that institutions are able to determine and implement plans that are in their best interests.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD. Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.