At a recent Guardian event Maja Pantić, a Professor of Affective and Behavioural Computing at Imperial College, London and head of the Samsung AI lab in Cambridge, said that in emerging fields, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, data science, new materials and bioengineering, tech companies such as Google and Facebook are offering “crazy” salaries which universities cannot compete with.

She estimated that 10% of academics in these areas are being lost to the private sector.

She says that the government should regulate the salaries that tech companies can offer researchers to keep important scientific knowledge in the public domain.

“We’re experiencing a brain drain from our universities. A lot of people from Imperial, Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and so on are going into these companies, and we’re left without the next generation of educators,” she said. “That’s really a problem.”

Countries such as Finland and the Netherlands, have introduced salary caps based on education and experience.

Pantic says, while these countries have lost tech talent to competitor nations, their experience underscores the need for regulation.

She continued “Shall we say to these companies you can only take so many of these people from higher education? I don’t know. But this is really something for the government to think about.”

The staffing problems are compounded by Brexit, Pantić added. She cited the example of a German professor specialising in robotics for autistic children who recently left the University of Hertfordshire for Canada. “If we start losing these talents, I don’t know where the country will end up,” she said.

Guardian launch Universities website.

The Guardian event was held to celebrate the launch of the Universities website. It examined the direction of travel for UK universities over the coming decade.

Three others joined Pantic on the panel.  These were panellists from different parts of the university sector and included the Guardian’s education editor, Richard Adams.

They also discussed the current speculation that several universities might be on the brink of closure,

Rebecca Bunting, vice-chancellor of Bucks New University, blamed the fierce competition for students for causing some universities to over-borrow.

“They’re wanting to make themselves distinctive, have cutting edge facilities, and that costs a lot of money,” she said. “It’s surprising to me how much people have borrowed without a really strong business case.”

She added that although the Office for Students, a non-departmental public body of the Department for Education, acting as the regulator and competition authority for the higher education sector in England may be planning to use one university shutdown as a “scalp” to represent “proof of a good market”, she doubts that it would allow that situation to arise.

“What would that mean to a major university in a city? And the ramifications of that failure, the generations who’ve been through that failure, the international standing of UK higher education?”

Pantić commented that although Imperial’s reputation might appear to shield it from the challenges of the higher education marketplace, the institution is facing its own problems – principally the loss of EU research funding and a potential shortfall in EU student applications after Brexit.

“Big, elite universities have built such a huge bureaucracy to support them, but now we can’t pay for it,” she said.

The marketised system

Anand Shukla, chief executive of the Brightside social mobility charity, said that the competitive marketplace was also impacting efforts to widen participation.

“If you have universities who are working with 14-18 year olds, they promote going to university in general, then in some instances as students get older it becomes less about promoting university in general and more your university in particular,” he said.

“Before 16 is about marketing and after 16 is about sales – I don’t think that’s helpful.”

He added that the rise of unconditional forms part of this picture.

“Every meeting I go to in universities I’m hearing about how unconditional offers are driving some behaviours that may not be in the students’ interest,” he said. “Schools say they’re stopping students from working in the final year of sixth form, then universities say students who’ve come in on unconditional offers are having to reconnect with the work habit.”

Evie Aspinall, president of the Cambridge Students’ Union, said the marketised system is the reason for the increasingly negative portrayals of universities in the media.

“Universities suddenly have to show they’re the best, making sure that your student gets the highest salary possible – and then public perception changes because it’s not about creating people who’ll do good in society, it’s about universities creating people who’ll become the elite,” she said. “That’s a dangerous image to be projecting.”

Aspinall herself has been the target of negative press coverage recently, which she feels is the result of the fact that student unions around the country are being unfairly scrutinised. “There’s this culture war over the idea that students are snowflakes,” she said. “Whatever we do is suddenly picked up – we’ve banned this, we’ve done that – [but] half the time that’s not what’s happened at all.”