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Benchmarking Project (UniForum Collection) 2017


Activity Collections

+What is the Staff Activity Collection?

The aim of the Staff Activity Collection (survey of employees on the payroll) is to collect data about how staff time has been allocated to activities over the past 12 months. The smallest time allocation is 10% of time. There are 153 activities in total which will provide consistent activity coding for all the universities taking part in the programme. Examples of the types of activities include: “Provide management or administrative support for Research Laboratories & Workshops”, “Provide reception and office support”, or "Chair, participate in or support committees, boards and University councils".

The Collection needs to be completed for all administrative and support staff. Around 10% of people are Survey Respondents and they complete the activity data collections using a web-based survey tool (UFAST). They usually have up to 15 people for whom they complete the survey.

+What is the Supplier Activity Collection?

The aim of the Supplier Activity Collection is to capture the costs and FTE for Suppliers and Services over the 12 month survey period. This is critical in allowing comparisons of resourcing profiles across universities because some universities choose to engage these resources internally and others via outsourcing.

+What will the Activity Collections achieve?

Combined the two Activity Collections will allow the University to:

  • quantify the total resourcing levels that support research and teaching at Durham
  • compare total support services resourcing levels and their make-up across the benchmarking group to understand how different choices impact total resourcing levels. For example to understand the:
    • Mix of in-house provided support versus outsourced support
    • Proportion of support in different parts of the University
    • Breadth of services provided by individuals
  • help explain the key characteristics of our resourcing. For example:
    • How much of the service delivery resourcing is based centrally in Professional Support Services (PSS), in Faculty Offices, in academic departments/schools or in colleges?
    • What breadth of services are provided by the people responsible for service delivery?

+Who are the Primary Contacts?

In the majority of cases the Primary Contacts are Heads of Service, Heads of Department or Heads of Colleges.

+Who are the Survey Respondents?

The Survey Respondents have been identified by the Primary Contacts. They will typically be the line manager or another manager/supervisor within a team.

+I am a Primary Contact for one or both of the Activity Collections. What do I need to know?

Your role in the programme is very important and you will receive training to provide you with the necessary information to complete your tasks. The training session you will need to attend lasts 90 minutes.

Your main tasks will be to:

  • nominate, confirm and communicate with Survey Respondents in your survey area(s);
  • notify the Collection Respondents when they can start the survey and provide them with the necessary login information;
  • monitor submission progress and validate/quality assure the data in the final submission

In Cubane's experience, the total time commitment required of you, including the training, should be about 2 hours.

+I am a Collection Respondent for one or both of the Activity Collections. What do I need to know?

Your role in the programme is very important and you will receive training to provide you with the necessary information to complete your tasks. The training session you will need to attend lasts 90 minutes.

As a Collection Respondent you may be completing the Staff Activity Collection, the Supplier Activity Collection, or both Collections for defined STET area(s) within your team/organisation unit.

For the Staff Activity Collection you will be providing both reporting relationship information and time allocations against defined activities for the staff in your Collection area(s). For the Supplier Activity Collection you will be supplying key operational data and time allocations to activities for the suppliers assigned to your Collection area(s).

All STET submissions will be reviewed by the Primary Contact for your area.

In Cubane's experience, the total time commitment required of you, including the training, is likely to be around 3.5/4 hours.

+Whose activity is covered by the Staff Activity Collection?

A set of rules, used by all the universities, governs whose activities should be included and whose should be excluded.

The Collection will include the activity of all of those on payroll during the period 1 August 2016 to 31 July 2017 who provide administration or support services.

Academic management roles, such as PVCs and Deans, are excluded.

The Collection includes all University staff who are:

  • classified as professional, operational and technical staff, including all employment classifications (e.g. permanent, fixed term, casual, part time, maternity or long term sickness leave).
  • performing any of the support services that are covered by the 14 functions and 153 activities of the UniForum Activity Description Framework, whether in PSS departments, academic departments/schools, research institutes/centre or colleges.

+Data is being captured about my role. What do I need to know?

The data is being captured by the project Survey Respondents, who will typically be your line manager or another manager/supervisor within your team. The data collection will capture information on the typical activities you undertake and the proportion of time that you spend on them.

The activity survey focuses on the period 1 August 2016 to 31 July 2017. If you have had several roles during this period you will have one entry in the survey for each role.

The information about what work you get involved in will be matched to a list of 153 standard activities that typically take place in a University. The same list is being used by all the Universities taking part in the study to allow for comparison later. Examples include: “Provide support for Research Laboratories & Workshops”, “Provide reception and office support”, or “Chair, participate or support committees, boards and University councils”.

The survey is not designed to capture everything you do, just to focus on the things you do most often and spend the most time on.

You will not be directly involved in completing the survey, and in many cases the Survey Respondents will be able to provide this type of information about your role themselves. However your manager may need to ask you questions to confirm or check details.

If you wish to see the coded information about your role, speak to your Survey Respondent.

+Who will see what is recorded for me and my role?

All information shared across the Russell Group universities taking part in the UniForum benchmarking programme will be anonymised, both at individual and university level. Within Durham, the Survey Respondents and Primary Contacts will see what is recorded for your role. Once the results have been analysed and presented back to us, senior management may choose to deep dive into certain areas to better understand the survey results.

+What will the data about my role be used for?

The key is to understand what we do and how we work; to look at where we spend money and how much we spend in supporting research and teaching activities.

+What happens if my manager doesn't know what I do?

Your manager will consult with you and ask for your assistance if they are unclear about any aspect of your role. If you have any concerns in this area, please speak to your manager.

+How do we know the Collection information submitted is correct?

We are using a number of strategies to ensure the data obtained under the Activity Collections is as accurate and representative as possible. We will be providing all Primary Contacts with progress reports at appropriate intervals during the Collections so that they can review the data that is being submitted and follow up on anything that may need double-checking. Survey Respondents (those who are responsible for completing the activity survey) will also be encouraged to consult with colleagues directly if they are unsure about what activity allocations should be submitted.

Ultimately, all of the data will be viewed and analysed at an aggregate level, not at an individual level. This approach has proven to be robust across the other participating institutions so data validation should not be a concern.

+Have the University Trade Unions been included?

The recognised trade unions have all been briefed about this project, and will continue to receive updates and information regarding this benchmarking exercise.

We will continue to meet regularly with the unions throughout the process, and have invited them to attend all relevant training sessions.

+I have a question. Where should I go?

Please contact your Head of Department/College in the first instance. If they cannot answer your query, please contact the Project Manager, David Hunt at

+Should staff members who are performing independent research be excluded from the Staff Activity Collection?

Independent researchers should be EXCLUDED from the survey. The key point is to be sure they are performing independent research.

This is best defined as: Performing independent research and not just paid as part of a research grant to support a Principle Investigator and their personal end goal is research that is likely to be or ideally published as their own research, either solely or jointly, then they should be excluded from the survey. This also includes the role of Research Fellow.

+What happens if the deadline for collecting the data is missed?

If we miss the ultimate closure date for submitting data, the University can’t take part in the benchmarking activity for this year. A delay in the data collection for the activity surveys will cause a reduction in time the University has to review data at a functional level and perform important quality checks. There is no flexibility on the deadlines which you will be given so it is important that Survey Respondents don’t leave their tasks to the last minute. Please advise the project team as early as possible if you are having any issues in completing the survey.

+Does the survey have to be completed in one go or can you save it as you go and come back to it?

You can do the survey in bite size chunks, just save the data imputed as you enter it. However, you can only submit a record once it is fully complete – once you’ve allocated 100% of time for the person and answered the two questions about their direct reports and relative management level.

+What will happen to the information once the exercise is completed?

Cubane Consulting will collect the data and analyse it as a benchmarking data set across all of the 12 Russell Group universities collecting data this year. The data will then be presented back to the universities at the end of November 2017 as a group, with a much more detailed level of data presented to each individual university in February 2018. The data will be delivered back in a comprehensive reporting tool with both the University’s own data and a high level extract of data from all of the universities in the group. Data will be cascaded through functional hierarchies to give everybody feedback, especially Survey Respondents who have been key in providing information.

+What happens if the activities for a person do not add up to 100%, given the minimum 10% rule for any one activity? Would there be time unallocated?

The Staff Activity Collection is not about reflecting everything that everybody does, it’s about capturing the main activities that an individual does and how much time they spend on them. In using the 10% rule for the smallest time allocation, it is possible that a person’s activities do not add up to 100%. In these rare situations, activities should be recalibrated. Code it all as 100% but recognise that some elements of the role haven’t been captured.

Benchmarking project

+What is the benchmarking programme about?

This is a multi-university Russell Group benchmarking exercise which is looking at the important work done by administrative and support staff.

Data collection from this benchmarking exercise will provide an evidence base to help us to understand what we currently do and the way we do it, and will give insight into how we resource different activities, and enable us to compare ourselves against other Russell Group universities who are engaging in this exercise.

+Which other Universities are taking part in the survey?

This year the following universities will be collecting data:

  • Birmingham
  • Bristol
  • Cambridge
  • Cardiff
  • Durham
  • Exeter
  • Glasgow
  • King's
  • Leeds
  • Manchester
  • Newcastle
  • UCL

+What is benchmarking?

Benchmarking studies are widely used to collect and compare information about similar organisations. As the universities taking part differ in both student numbers and the amount of research that they do, a mathematical model is used to adjust the information provided so we can see a true ‘like for like’ comparison.

+What are the benefits of participating in the programme?

The programme will provide invaluable information to the University, especially managers and UEC members to help them to make informed decisions. There will also be an opportunity to compare practices with other Russell Group institutions.

+What are the project timescales?

The Staff Activity Collection will take place in August and September. There will be training for Survey Respondents before the survey opens. The Supplier Activity Collection will also run within this period.

The Service Effectiveness Survey took place in April and May 2017.

+How was the programme developed?

The UniForum programme is a subscription-based service offered by Cubane Consulting. It involves the application of a well-tested methodology for capturing data regarding the distribution of all university support services against a comprehensive Activity Framework. All member institutions will follow the same methodology developed by Cubane when completing the Activity Collections.

+How did we engage Cubane Consulting?

Cubane Consulting were engaged as part of a joint procurement process, led by one of the Russell Group universities on behalf of the others.

+Have Cubane Consulting run this programme before?

Yes. Cubane Consulting are experts in the field and have developed a statistically rigorous model especially for the HE sector. The programme has been running for a number of years in Australia and New Zealand where 20 universities currently take part. 18 Russell Group universities now take part in the United Kingdom.

+What does the programme involve?

The study is split into two parts: the Staff Activity Collection (survey of employees on the payroll) and the Supplier Activity Collection.

The Staff Activity Collection is to record what people on the payroll (i.e. employed staff) do. The Supplier Activity Collection will record the activity carried out by suppliers/contractors.

Information from the Staff Activity Collection combined with information from the Supplier Activity Collection provides insight into how each University resources its support services, irrespective of the differences in what activities are outsourced by each University. Collecting supplier costs and capacity using the Supplier Activity Collection runs in parallel with the Staff Activity Collection.