By Published On: April 15th, 2021

One of the trickiest balancing acts that those leading professional administrative services have to strike is how to keep spend at manageable levels now that, for the most part, the emergency controls of 2020 have been lifted.

None of the fundamental factors that argue in favour of a strongly disciplined approach have changed: costs continue to rise, the expectations of students haven’t reduced, competition across the sector is no less fierce. And yet the sense of ‘burning platform’ has certainly diminished, and with it the ability of senior leaders to mandate and enforce staying within university-wide limits.

In this more nuanced but still challenging operating environment, what do you do? The experience of UniForum members suggests that the following five tactics, individually and especially all together, make the difference.

Tactic 1: focus on whole-institution visibility and flexibility, not ‘central control’

One of the biggest myths and misconceptions about successful operating model redesign of a university’s professional services is that all roads lead to centralisation. This just isn’t the case, and it’s certainly not what Cubane advocates based on the evidence of the UniForum benchmarking programme.

What is key is conscious decision-making based on a shared view of how things are: a picture that key decision-makers buy in to, and that acts as a genuine panorama. This may sound obvious, but achieving a shared view that managers of support services accept is far from easy. Once achieved, a transparent and trusted picture of the ‘as is’ allows good decisions about the ‘should be’: whatever that involves. Without taking into account the whole institution view, spend discipline will be doomed to fail, but the ethos needs to be visibility, not diktat.

Hand in hand with enhancing visibility should be an emphasis on future flexibility. All university leadership teams will be asking themselves: how do administrative services build in more flexibility so that when things change again (as they surely will) the institution can be much quicker to adapt? The case for investing time and energy in service redesign to improve future agility has never been stronger.

Tactic 2: keep everyone’s ‘eyes on the prize’

Which areas of temporary investment should continue? Which innovations, including those piloted as a response to the pandemic, can be mainstreamed? How and where can capacity from a finite pool of available staff, all working hard, be freed up to support new endeavours on a sustainable basis?

These are all great questions to be focusing attention on, rather than what should stop, be reduced or wound down. And not just from the point of view of a positive overall messaging strategy: it’s a tactic that works authentically well as much in the case of a growing institution as one that’s facing revenue challenges. Because even when things are going well, funds are always finite and choices need to be made. And a message of ‘how can we create the means to invest in the things that matter most’ can be as easily applied by individual teams to their week-in, week-out work as the university as a whole.

Tactic 3: agree function-based capacity limits together, instead of over-emphasising budget unit cost

It may seem paradoxical to be arguing against a cost focus in a discussion of spend discipline, but one of the most powerful tactics UniForum members have used to keep costs down (in practice) has been to focus on capacity instead.

Budgeting processes for support services are typically based around organisational units, but the problem is this leads to challenges with uncoordinated approaches to resourcing between service divisions and academic divisions. Resourcing is often driven by local needs based on budget available to the organisation unit rather than taking a more holistic view of priorities.

Instead, agreeing to capacity (FTE) budgets by function which can be tracked across the entire organisation results in greater transparency of spend and understanding whether spend areas are truly strategic.

During the budgeting process, an institution should agree to an FTE budget by function across the entire university and then create governance processes to work within those function envelopes as part of hiring or re-allocation decisions.

To enable this, every professional staff member needs to be allocated to a ‘functional’ category (or more than one e.g. a primary and secondary) as is done by some of the leading UniForum users: something that’s independent of the organisational unit they are employed by. This, combined with focusing on FTE, is a key tactic for providing a transparent way for reporting on the resourcing employed in a service across the institution.

Tactic 4: use regularly updated data to ask difficult questions early

Cubane has recently launched a brand new approach to the way it benchmarks, allowing universities to gain rapid access to an up-to-date view of staff resourcing but without losing the benefit that members of the UniForum programme have always enjoyed: a complete and detailed picture of resourcing across the whole institution.

What this means is that a university following the progressive, real time reporting model gets ‘warning signs’ of resourcing running away, and has the opportunity to act long before this becomes an issue at year-end.

As the chart here shows, the new UniForum reporting tools help this example university see, within the first quarter of the year, that its resourcing for one particular service is rising rapidly.

In this example, the HR functional leadership team can use this as a prompt to investigate where this regrowth is happening, and why: Is this a conscious reinvestment or a case of spend ‘leaking back’ after the difficult choices made in 2020? Does this signal a need to tighten up processes to ensure better co-ordination between units recruiting similar roles?

Tactic 5: emphasise the benefits to staff of institution-wide working

Working in joined-up ways, emphasising the needs of service users, avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort: all these things might result in improved efficiency, but the fact of the matter is they also make working life better and more satisfying for staff. The experience of UniForum members demonstrates, time and again, that outcomes for staff are better when a whole institution view is taken –  whether this  comes in the form of dotted-line management structures, managed secondments, resource pooling or communities of practice.

Staff satisfaction (for example as measured by internal surveys or Cubane’s Service Effectiveness survey) rises when function-led approaches are successfully used. This may partly be because service standards go up, but it’s as much because staff see clearer and better career prospects and pathways, have more opportunity to collaborate – impactfully – with professional colleagues, and spend less of their time on the frustrating, time-consuming ‘clean-up’ of broken processes. That costs will be kept under control at the same time is the icing on the cake (just don’t tell your CFO).

Which factors contribute most to maintaining spend discipline at your university? Let us know by contacting the Cubane team here, where you can also arrange for a call with the senior consultant in your region to find out more about the experience of UniForum members.

About the Author: Phil Copestake

Phil leads Cubane’s business in the UK and Europe. Before joining Cubane he was a senior member of the higher education practice at PA Consulting, with wide-ranging experience of supporting universities across the UK and internationally. He worked with a large number of institutions to develop and implement major transformation programmes to improve efficiency and service standards, and also aided several universities in developing and stress-testing global expansion and other investment plans. Phil specialises in strategy development and execution, preparing robust business cases to aid good decision making, and designing new customer-centred service delivery models. To contact Phil please email [email protected]