UK Universities and their global outlook. The increasing demand for international professionals.

Published: 5 September 2013

Changes in funding and new rules governing recruitment mean that Higher Education is rarely out of the news. The Berwick Partners Education Practice has noticed a fast growing trend in the demand and importance of international professionals within Universities. In this article we explore why this is the case and what skills are required in these increasingly challenging and high profile roles.

The background

2012-13 saw a significant decline in the number of UK students starting full time courses in the UK. Although as of January this year, applications had risen again, these figures cannot yet be seen as a long term trend, particularly if one looks at the broader picture of data.

Greater reliance upon the income from student fees means that Universities have no choice but to be increasingly cognisant of student choice. The prospect of heavy debt and the proliferation of information sources such as Unistat mean that prospective students (at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels) are thinking very carefully about if they wish to pursue a degree, where they want to do it and indeed what they want to do.

This has a number of notable effects;

  • There has been a reduction in the number of students undertaking part time study
  • There has been a decline in students taking taught post-graduate degrees
  • There are very clear variations in subject choice, with some subjects benefitting (eg; STEM subjects) and others seeing a sharp decline in numbers (eg; modern foreign languages)
  • There is also increased competition within the Higher Education sector as universities seek to demonstrate student satisfaction, teaching prowess and employability of their graduates
  • Finally, there is increased competition from outside the sector as Further Education providers grow their capability to provide courses outside of university franchises.

UK PLC and Higher Education

All of this creates a complex backdrop against which Universities must operate. It has long been recognised that the calibre of Higher Education and Research has been one of UK PLC’s main exports. This reputation is now being traded upon as the international dimension becomes a central tenet of corporate policy.

Consequently, headhunting talented Higher Education International professionals is forming an increasingly large and challenging part of our workload within the Berwick Partners Education Practice. As might well be anticipated, our clients have high expectations and current demand for talent often exceeds supply. This is partly due to international posts being designated at more senior levels than had hitherto been the case and the fact that the roles themselves have significant operational, managerial and strategic content, thereby requiring the best within their fields.

The roles

Keeping in mind the trends discussed above, it might be easy to assume that the recruitment of international students is the most significant element of the role. Indeed there is a compelling statistical story in this regard. Since 2010, there has been a 10% rise in full time international undergraduate students at UK Universities, 13% for taught postgraduates and 23% for research degrees.[1] As such, England is the second most popular destination for international students, after the USA[2].

However “bottoms on seats” is only part of the story. The routes through which these results are achieved create a multi-facetted workload for the international professional. Approaching a global audience is complex. For example, the identification of target countries/ regions must be in line with local need, the current strengths of the institution itself and of course its overall direction from both a research and teaching point of view.

This will require the international professional’s input to strategic academic relationships and/ or capital projects. Here the critical outcome will often be around knowledge transfer or research collaboration. Yet it will often be the international professional’s personal credibility that will link it to recruitment and its subsequent benefits. In addition to this, the accurate deployment of often limited resources on the ground demands accurate statistical analysis, financial acumen and the operational wherewithal to work with in-country agents or the institution’s regional offices.

Although the UK has been very successful in attracting international students to date, there are signs that the market is becoming increasingly competitive, which can only add to the workload of the international professional. Canada is an emergent player on account of the growing reputation of its Universities, coupled with a liberal policy on student and academic immigration. It is feared that the UK’s cap on student immigration from outside of the EU will have a negative impact upon perception, thereby giving our competitors the advantage.

There is also increasing competition with the UK itself as Universities invest more heavily in their international presence both from an academic and a recruitment perspective. Whilst UK Higher Education is an attractive proposition in its own right, it is important for each establishment to develop their own brand and story in order to stand out from their peers.


The global interface is one of the most dynamic and exciting elements of contemporary Higher Education. Whilst the possibilities are boundless, the race to realise the opportunities will be hard won. From our perspective there is a group of emergent experts who are professionalising this field and creating an even more competitive environment which will benefit both students and academics alike.

Nobody can doubt the importance of our Universities in the ongoing promotion of UK PLC and the role of international professionals within Higher Education should not be underestimated.

Elizabeth James is a Consultant in Berwick Partners. She currently focuses on public sector appointments within the Midlands region. Liz has worked in Executive Search for over six years. She joined Berwick Partners in 2006 from a competitor where she delivered a wide range of high profile Regeneration and Local Government assignments. She has also spent time as a Strategic Business Analyst, providing bespoke research, report and article writing on public sector areas of interest. Prior to this Liz was part of a large Unitary Council's Corporate Policy Team managing projects relating to equality and diversity, community consultation and inspection. She has also spent a year in Brussels working as a researcher for an economic development consultancy.

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