The limits of 'all in this together'

The pandemic saw a remarkable rallying together across institutions to make virtual learning and remote working a reality. Across many areas of university life what may have previously been unthinkable… happened.

Academics, teaching design staff, IT teams and others worked with impressive speed and coordination to complete the move to online learning. This cooperation continues as faculties and departments provide an ever more polished online product for ensuing academic terms. Staff in all parts of universities have shown a nearly unprecedented willingness to accept constraints and trade-offs in the interests of the collective interests of the university.

How long will this spirit last as universities are challenged to make tough decisions in the face of revenue limitations and uncertainties? Will the cultural inertia of the past return or is there truly an appetite for continued sacrifice; in the hope that institutions emerge stronger in the long run?

Through ongoing conversations with managers and senior leaders at UniForum member institutions, three key challenges and potential remedies emerge.

Adapt the way you budget to overcome the tendency to be backward-looking

A large proportion of controllable costs are for administrative and other operational services, but budget control for these services are rarely distributed in line with where the work actually gets done, and there’s no mechanism for taking an holistic view of future institutional need.

Commonly, budget allocations to academic units are aligned to enrolment and other academic factors, but administrative allocations are based on historical or activity-based drivers: a school or faculty gets what it’s gotten in the past, modulated up or down via a little light horse-trading or some opaque contribution mechanism. Meanwhile central administrative departments (HR, IT, Finance and so on) are tasked with serving the whole university whilst the majority of staff and other resources involved in doing the work are not in their control.

What this means is that administrative spend decisions are hampered by lack of visibility, distributed accountability, and potential budget game-playing. Universities have in many cases been able to override this default setting thanks to the overwhelming centripetal pressure of the pandemic but are bound to fall back into bad old ways. The only practicable solution is to use a platform for allocating staff time to common administrative functions, such as the UniForum benchmarking model, and then budgeting based on a truly institution-wide view of comprehensive capacity.

Pick your battles and focus on building momentum

After a period of prolonged going ‘above and beyond’, including working in very different ways and in unusual roles, it’s completely understandable that those on the frontline – whether academics or administrative staff – crave a return to how things used to be.

The danger is that this kind of retrenchment is a real barrier to end-to-end service delivery: something that most universities, at the level of the institution overall, know to be a key outcome. The ‘that’s not my job, it’s HR’s’ attitude ignores what a vital role a manager or academic plays in an activity like staff recruitment.

The answer is not for university leaders and transformation teams to ignore this kind of impulse, but to pick their battles. Identify the one or two key institution-wide enablers that are big enough to be truly impactful but contained enough to be deliverable. There was a great example of this kind of ‘incremental but ambitious’ approach in the University of Auckland case study, where the successful piloting of a transactional shared service centre created the confidence and momentum necessary to create the space for lastingly transformative change.

Keep on communicating (but make it recognisable)

In UniForum practice share events there’s always a point at which the importance of clear and repeated communication comes up. Universities in all regions have found that communicating clearly – even or especially if there’s a lack of clarity around what will happen next – has been even more important during the pandemic period.

The more nuanced point about effective communication to maintain a degree of togetherness once the pressures ease is the need to ‘make it about me’: ensure that each of the main communities within the university can recognise themselves in the messaging and examples used. Whether the university leadership team needs to convey the reasons for a tricky but important decision, or announce plans for an upcoming change programme, the module leader, research technician, HR administrator and school office manager need to be able to clearly see what this will mean for them.

Doing this well takes time and effort, but as with so much investment during difficult times the costs of communicating poorly or too little are much higher.