Undertaking a benchmarking exercise for your university is proven to be beneficial in informing investment decisions, measuring performance and driving organisational improvement. Whether the catalyst is the need to shape the cost base to improve student outcomes, or to identify potential savings, or to monitor growth or investment plans, benchmarking delivers invaluable strategic insight to university leaders. But what is the best way to approach such an exercise? The following checklist covers the most important aspects of a successful benchmarking project.Have you used good quality data from each of your core university systems (eg. HR, Finance, and the Student Management System)?
You have to be certain about the quality of your benchmarking inputs and your core systems should contain the most up to date and accurate data available.
Make sure your approach looks at activities, not structures
Universities may all face similar challenges but in our experience no two universities operate the same structure, so looking at your activities (eg teaching, research, professional services) instead will provide you with a better frame of reference for when you wish to compare yourself with other universities, whilst also reducing the time required to ‘normalise’ the data ahead of those comparisons.
Ensure you have identified and involved the right people from the start (accuracy, buy-in, ability to act upon results)
Gaining buy-in from across the university is essential – done correctly, a benchmarking exercise will collect and analyse data from every function, so it is important managers understand the purpose of the exercise and their contribution towards it. In this way, all key stakeholders are engaged with the process from the start and can help validate data (e.g. how student services administrators’ time might be split between teaching administration, student services administration, admissions and fees administration). This helps set the foundations for effecting any changes recommended as outputs from the exercise.
"Universities may all face similar challenges but in our experience no two universities operate the same"
Do not overlook or underestimate your decentralised costs.
It is highly unlikely the assumed cost of your professional services functions will be accurate. In general, we find the actual cost of functions such as IT services, student services, registry, finance and marketing and HR tends to be between 15% and 35% above the assumed cost. Take time to understand the cost base properly to avoid making decisions on headline data.
Take time to understand your mix of academic staff
Understanding your academic staff mix adds context to the results. How does your mix of deans, professors, senior lecturers etc influence average pay levels in teaching and research?
Create a plan to embed benchmarking as a regular exercise to maximise the benefits of your efforts
Benchmarking has the greatest impact when it is part of a culture of continuous self-assessment and performance improvement, rather than a one-time event. Benchmarking should be included in the performance management information available to your leadership team – it’s a vital tool in your management kit-bag and provides high-level performance indicators that are suitable to be shared in a governance and board context. Benchmarks of relative performance are useful and objective ways of measuring distance travelled and ensuring your organisation keeps on track with its strategic plans.
"Understanding your academic staff mix adds context to the results"
Use your financial benchmarking data in conjunction with qualitative data to deduce value for money from your activities
Combining qualitative measures with financial benchmarking analysis for your departments enables you to measure value for money and gives greater context to resource allocation decisions. A marketing function might vary from the benchmark average in terms of spend but bringing in quality of service analysis might show a high level of value for money, in which case, resource allocation discussions may take on a different angle.
Engage with other universities undertaking benchmarking exercises
Identify the universities that are of most use to you and establish how they are benchmarking. These might be similar size universities, those with similar aspirations, universities considered to be operating best practice that you might wish to emulate, or those offering similar curriculum or with a similar student profile.
See how universities’ senior leaders are using benchmarking to improve performance and student outcomes.