4th July 2024

Global Competition for Talent – Opportunities for UK Universities and Research Institutions

While there has been no shortage of comment over recent months on the unprecedented challenges facing UK universities and research institutions, particularly regarding financial sustainability, there have been some recent signs that optimism is returning to the sector, and we see real opportunities for institutions to capitalise on this change in sentiment to attract and secure academic and research talent. The stringent cost-cutting measures that many institutions were forced to implement in the past 12-18 months have largely been completed, and many institutions are adapting to the decline in international student numbers. Whilst few are expecting the outcome of this week’s general election to lead to any immediate changes to funding for universities and research institutions, there is growing recognition that changes are needed to ensure the viability and sustainability of the sector, and an expectation that the next government will initiate a review of the system and, hopefully, begin to tackle the underlying issues.   

Although research institutions face different challenges, flat core funding over the past decade has meant a steady real-terms decline in their funding, affecting their ability to maintain, let alone invest in, vital research infrastructure. Indeed, without access to the kinds of surplus-generating activities that universities have used to cross subsidise activities, many research institutions have been left with little option but to dip into precious reserves to make up any shortfall in their budgets. Medical research institutes in particular have been hard hit by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to considerable reductions in spending and investment in research by medical research charities. Despite funding challenges, these institutes have maintained their well-deserved reputations for research excellence, and consequently remain attractive to international research talent.

Although there is broad recognition and understanding of the funding challenges across the sector, there is as yet no clear strategy to address the underlying issues. The Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) launched the UK Science and Technology Framework in March 2023, setting out the Government’s goals and vision for science and technology to 2030. It was broadly welcomed across the sector, but it stopped short of providing a clear strategy to address funding challenges and ensure the sustainability of the sector, which is an increasingly important part of the UK economy. DSIT’s update on progress details various initiatives and achievements that have been delivered and/or announced, including funding and investment in AI and compute infrastructure, a £500 million upgrade to the Diamond Light Source, new Fellowships to attract, support and retain research talent, and crucially, the UK’s association to Horizon.

Association to Horizon is widely acknowledged as being vital to realising the ambitions set out in the S&T Framework, and it will certainly help UK universities and research institutions to attract talent once again from across Europe, something which has been a challenge since the Brexit referendum. The various Fellowship schemes announced have also been welcomed by the sector, but more is needed on talent and skills if the stated ambitions are to be achieved. For example, recent analysis from The Royal Society has shown UK visa costs for researchers are multiple times greater than in other countries, presenting a significant barrier for international research talent considering a move to the UK. Institutions that can cover or contribute to these costs have an advantage when it comes to attracting talent but are likely to do so only for the most senior and strategic appointments. Having worked with a wide array of universities and research institutions to attract senior academic and research talent over recent years, we are acutely aware of the impact these costs can have on candidates’ decisions. But it is important to recognise that there are also challenges in other national systems, and the UK remains an attractive place for research and academic talent to conduct research and develop their careers. Universities and research institutions are increasingly turning to specialist executive search to help them compete successful in the global race for talent. Having the support of experienced and well-informed search professionals to identify, engage and support international candidates through what can be lengthy appointment processes significantly reduces attrition from the field and optimises for a successful outcome.  

Notwithstanding the challenges facing the sector, sentiment is shifting and there is now growing optimism. Association to Horizon has likely helped, but there have also been suggestions that a new government could implement significant policy, funding and regulatory changes for universities and research institutions, and finally begin to tackle the underlying issues. That will take time of course and will likely involve some difficult decisions. In the meantime, with the submission deadline just four years away, many universities are turning their attention to REF 2029, focusing on what they can do now to consolidate, strengthen, and improve their position. While for some institutions, particularly those who have recently implemented redundancy and voluntary severance schemes, this will likely focus on retaining their current research talent. But several universities have initiated talent campaigns to attract new talent and others have suggested they are likely to follow suit in the coming months. Institutions with financial resources to invest have an opportunity to compete and win in the global race for talent, particularly in key areas that have been highlighted in the S&T Framework. And the same is true for many of the UK’s research institutes, which despite funding challenges, remain highly attractive to international research talent looking to develop their careers in genuinely world-leading research institutes.

The McLean Partnership has deep expertise and experience supporting universities and other research institutions in the design and successful execution of talent campaigns, ranging from single appointments in strategically important areas, to broad, multiple appointment campaigns at school, faculty or even whole institution level. We work in genuine partnership with our clients, designing a search and selection process that aligns with specific needs of the search and optimising for the best outcome. For a more detailed discussion about how we could support you in identifying and securing outstanding academic or research talent, please contact Dr Graham Little at GrahamLittle@McLeanPartnership.com.

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