Making good decisions around what to invest in

Female student in library

In one of our earlier articles we focused on making the right choices to create savings and efficiencies that are sustainable. In most cases, the purpose of these savings is to re-invest in strategic areas that support the university mission.

Where to invest can be a tricky question to answer particularly when it comes to support services at a university. Requests for increased resourcing come from all parts of the institution and senior executives often have an ‘internal view’ to determine if the investments further the aims of the university as a whole. In this article we’ll explore four key considerations for leaders making investment choices.

1. Interpreting spend relative to peers/sector

As a naturally collaborative sector, university leaders are fair to ask how spend in various areas compares to peers. In doing so it’s important to understand what the institution plans to do with that comparison. Anyone who has engaged in such exercises would know there is more nuance than reaching a conclusion simply by being higher or lower than others. Important questions to ask would be:

Is the spend area strategic to my institution? Do I get any genuine advantage from spending more than others? In back office support areas like payroll and accounts payable the answer is almost always not.

For my strategic areas if I am spending less, how do my outcomes compare? Data shows us that simply spending more does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. This may not always be straight forward to determine as we know in some areas there is a lag between investment and outcomes (e.g. student recruitment, alumni and donor relations etc.).

2. Prior patterns might be a poor guide to future priorities

One potential pitfall in comparative snapshots is missing out on the overall direction of travel. It may look like you are well invested at a certain point in time however the trend may be that peer institutions have been ramping up investments in certain areas and are on a path to surpass you in a few years’ time. As noted above, these could be areas with a lag in outcomes – and seeing these trend changes early can notably shift how and when you choose to invest.

3. What might feel like a big investment to you could be small compared to your peers

As Covid forced institutions into remote operations, the need to invest in remote learning capabilities became obvious. Significant one-time investments went into making this work both for the immediate ‘crisis’ as well as setting the institution to do this well in the future. As sizeable as these investments were, a recent Cubane study found that universities in one region were making far greater investment in teaching support than other regions over a period of years. With this reality it might be fair to say that the institutions who were making these investments several years prior were better prepared.

Knowing this might challenge how much you have to do and how quickly to keep pace with the sector.

Another example is in international student recruitment. We have seen one UniForum region prioritize investment in this area to stellar results. Many institutions in other regions are now prioritizing this area in the face of government funding constraints. However, the degree and type of investment required may be influenced by know how much “catching up” is required in a highly competitive global market.

4. Seeing the bigger picture: accepting that your investment might be trumped by bigger factors

As with many things, choosing where to invest based on past success can risk confusing correlation with causation. Once again, international student recruiting provides a cautionary tale. Our colleagues at Nous have written a on the success of Canadian institutions in attracting international students and whether it has to do with real investment, or simply a coming together of all the right external factors. In this example, its clear that broader global factors have contributed to Canada’s success in international recruitment. However, these factors could just as easily go the other way and investments may simply not pay off.

How UniForum can help

While we often write about driving efficiency in support services – UniForum data can be an important input into how those efficiency savings are re-allocated. We’ve been working with some members on helping to create different scenarios around re-allocating resources between functions and its impact on budgeting decisions.

UniForum data and knowledge sharing with peers creates an objective external view to support investment decisions.

A core aspect of UniForum is being able to track spend by function relative to your peers. This basic benchmarking provides an immediate insight to ask the right questions when requests for more resourcing are made.

If you’d like to learn more or contribute your experiences, please reach out to