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What is the “great resignation” and why is it happening?

Increased private investment in edtech and companies focused on international student recruitment has triggered an unexpected talent war, with a number of high profile, experienced candidates moving from lengthy university careers to private sector positions.

Digital jobs are in "high demand and pay well", according to the CEO of Coursera. Photo: iStock

During the first three months of 2022, private sector pay increased by 7%, while public sector pay fell to a five-year low at just 1.9%

Attracted by the presumed fast pace environment of scale-up businesses, many experienced staff working at universities, notably in International Offices, have crossed over to the “vendor” side.

Data from The PIE Exec Search recruitment business, part of The PIE stable, has revealed a sharp increase in job listings in the last nine months, with private sector jobs accounting for almost 70% of new vacancies.

Career confidence in higher education has increased post-pandemic but has also signalled a shift towards professionals considering private sector opportunities.

In the months between August 2021 and May 2022, The PIE Exec Search recorded double the number of job listings and five times the number of executive search assignments than during the same period in the previous year. The industry is bouncing back, with a clearer picture of what student mobility will look like across borders and what talent will be required to meet strategic opportunities.

“Organisations and job seekers across international education are navigating a totally different jobs market post-pandemic”

International pathway providers are one of the closest public-private partnerships in the sector, often embedded directly into university campuses and international teams.

Data shared by The PIE’s recruitment team revealed that two leading pathway providers had over 120 global vacancies listed between them on the Jobs Board platform during April 2022.

“Organisations and job seekers across international education are navigating a totally different jobs market post-pandemic,” said Nick Golding, business development director at The PIE Exec Search.

“With a huge amount of innovation across the industry, we are seeing an abundance of new roles and locations opening up. Remote working is becoming the new norm and some of these jobs simply didn’t exist a few years ago.”

CEO of private online course provider Coursera, Jeff Maggioncalda, described the significance of working patterns pivoting online in the same way education has when he addressed the Middle Eastern Thought Leadership Conference in London in May.

“Digital jobs are in high demand and pay well,” he said. “Digital jobs can be done anywhere and by anyone as long as they have the skills. Talent is equally distributed but opportunity is not. I think that’ll be less true in the future than it is today. Job opportunities are more accessible because of remote and hybrid working.”

The “great resignation” refers to the wider economic trend of workers voluntarily reassessing their work-life balance in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s certainly been bandied about within International Education channels.

Some of the moves out of HE into the commercial sector that The PIE Exec Search can attest to include Gareth Topp leaving University of Brighton to join Educo and Paul Teasdale who moved from LSE to Enroly, while other similar moves from HE to Edtech are happening in the US and Canada too.

There are signs that many privately run businesses are considering expansion in Australia too, and the sector there saw a lot of staff losses as university budgets were crushed. 

“We’ve seen candidates being offered 40% to 50% increases in salary, with many candidates considering several offers at once,” reveals Golding.

“We have seen bidding wars for some candidates adding up to 20% on the original offer. In these types of negotiations, inevitably private sector companies can be flexible with their offer, while public universities lose out because of their rigid pay structures.”

In the UK, the Office for National Statistics, recently announced that during the first three months of 2022, private sector pay increased by 7%, while public sector pay fell to a five-year low at just 1.9%. This comes against a national cost-of-living crisis with inflation at a 30-year high at 7% (and expected to peak at 10% this summer).

But Grace Dickinson, senior campaign manager at BridgeU and previously employed at a UK uni, explained the perspective she had from her recent role as an international recruitment manager for a UK university which influenced her decision to switch roles.

“One of the main joys of working in this sector is the opportunity to meaningfully engage with and support international students”

“International recruitment officers want to do well by their students, and one of the main joys of working in this sector is the opportunity to meaningfully engage with and support international students,” she said.

“The unprecedented growth in interest in the UK however has exposed underlying issues with service delivery for international students with reports of some universities over-accepting deposits well beyond their CAS allowance as an example of this.

It’s the international recruitment staff who witness the resulting stress caused for students without being in a position to directly rectify, or indeed prevent, these issues.”

Pay comparison is a major factor in the current employment turnover however, according to Golding from PES. And with well funded edtech businesses and multiple millions in investment streaming into our industry, pay rises are more achievable than ever for those who choose to leave mid-tier university and college roles. 

“This is undoubtedly a candidate-led market” Golding explained. Private sector companies are seeking the expertise, the contacts and the validation that university top talent brings.

As large, complex organisations, many universities are still struggling with hybrid operations split between home workers and office-based teams. Others in the industry talk of frustrations around return to office expectations.

There is an appetite for new challenges, adds Golding from PES. “People are feeling more adventurous and more at ease with change; they are understanding that change doesn’t have to be a negative thing and they are able to thrive outside of their comfort zone.”

“They can always return to the higher education space with the fresh perspective of working for organisations determined to make an impact quickly.”

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