Strategic Review of Professional Services

Background

Professional services, wherever they are in the University, are struggling with increased demand and workload, driven by increases in student numbers and research activity, an increasingly complex regulatory and funding environment, and a range of other factors.  

There is broad consensus that our professional services, despite the dedication and efforts of our staff, are not as effective as they might be. Incremental efficiencies are increasingly hard to find and have not tackled the root causes of some of the issues.  

The University is therefore carrying out a strategic view of the strengths and weaknesses of our professional services across the University with a view to considering how the design and structure can best support our academic mission in the most effective way. 

About the review 

The strategic review of Oxford’s professional services model is designed to: 

  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current model
  • Provide an evidence base to build a collective understanding about where there is (and is not) a case for change  
  • Help build a consensus about the strategic direction for any future changes that might be needed 

It is aimed at helping the University achieve the Professional Services Together ambitions - a University-wide approach to evolving our professional services, in support of our mission of teaching and research.

The review was commissioned by the Services Subcommittee, and is being managed by a working party chaired by the Registrar, with representatives from University Administration and Services (UAS) and all academic divisions.  
 
The scope is professional services in all parts of the University (for example, UAS, GLAM (Gardens, Libraries and Museums), divisions, departments). Colleges are out of scope.

Fit with other key developments 

The Strategic Review has launched at a period of significant change at the University. It is designed to complement a range of other developments in the following ways: 

  • Digital Transformation: the review is likely to identify priorities for our digital transformation ambitions (for example, better support for automated processes, in support of more effective professional services
  • Vice-Chancellor’s Review of Pay and Conditions: both initiatives are intended to improve the working environment for our professional services staff 
  • Inflation Mitigations, and financial pressures: more efficient services likely to free up funding to support Oxford’s academic mission 

The review comes under Professional Services Together – complementing the framework, tools and resources provided by the People and Change Programme, and the rolling programme of individual service reviews commissioned by the Services Subcommittee – helping achieve our wider ambitions in the key areas of people, quality and collaboration.  

About the analysis phase 

The analysis phase took place during Trinity term 2023 and over the summer. It involved:

  • Quantitative analysis of internal and external data to provide an overview of the current professional services landscape at the University, benchmarked against other universities where appropriate
  • Listening exercises with over 100 colleagues: including structured interviews with academic and professional services leaders as well as group sessions with a range of academic, UAS, and divisional and departmental colleagues

The analysis phase was not intended to propose changes to our ways of working or structure. Instead it sought to describe the current position and start exploring the strengths and weaknesses of alternative models. 

 

Key findings of the analysis phase 

The analysis highlighted significant divergences between different parts of the University in terms of service provision and investment. It found that:

  • There has been an increase in the volume of activity being supported by professional services (for example, because of increased student headcount and research income), but a key driver of the additional ‘burden’ on staff is additional complexity and regulatory requirements, rather than just an increase in volume
  • Oxford’s professional services are not an outlier in terms of expense or size compared to similar institutions – but we do not show evidence of economies of scale which might be expected given we have the largest professional services amongst UK universities
  • When looking across the whole institution, there has been meaningful investment in our professional services over the past 5-6 years. However, this investment has varied significantly across the University
  • There has been significantly greater growth in professional service staff in divisions and departments than in the UAS, and there are also significant differences in investment between the different academic divisions

The analysis highlighted both strengths and weaknesses of how we deliver, and take decisions about, our professional services. 

Strengths included:

  • Knowledge, accessibility and responsiveness of locally-based teams
  • Expertise and technical knowledge of specialised central teams
  • Talent and commitment of stand-out individuals,
  • Acknowledgement of positive changes resulting from Professional Services Together

Weaknesses included:

  • Ambiguity about who is accountable, responsible and contributing to services and activities
  • Funding arrangements which do not meet the needs of the University as a whole
  • Limited professional alignment between staff delivering the same service in different parts of the University
  • Poor use of data and insight to inform service provision, with little strategic oversight of how we deliver professional services across the whole University
  • Risk aversion
Focus on departmental investment

Because of our devolved structure, and how decisions are made in that context, the analysis found a prioritisation of investment in departmental services over more centralised services. This departmental investment is carefully planned and reflects departmental priorities and perceptions of risks and demands – as well as their ability to invest. Often it addresses the local impacts of perceived failures of provision by central services or specific local needs.

Departments value responsiveness of locally-based support: and it is easier for them to tailor and invest in local services than affecting provision at University-wide level.

Concerns about end-to-end services

However, local investment is not always leading to end-to-end services that users are happy with. A lack of transparency and understanding over how services are delivered end-to-end leads to inconsistency and confusion over responsibilities and accountability.

It is difficult to have oversight of cumulative effect of local decisions about professional services, or to align central and local resourcing of professional service activity.

Diverging experiences

The result is significant and growing divergences in investment in professional services across the University – which results in different experiences both for service recipients and for professional services staff delivering those services across the University.

Overall the analysis suggested that while there are a wide range of benefits to our devolved structure, there are four broad underlying issues that make it harder for us to take and sustain collective decisions about the provision of end-to-end services:

  • A lack of collective vision as to how each professional service should, in principle, be organised and delivered
     
  • Uncertainty over responsibility and lack of accountability for end-to-end service design and planning
     
  • A fragmented professional service population that has not yet embedded necessary connections between and across professional functions
     
  • Lack of strategic oversight of professional services as a whole that explicitly considers and balances the differing needs and perspectives of departments, divisions and the University

Finally, the analysis highlights significant risks if these changes are not urgently addressed:

  • Quality and access to services: we cannot continue with differential rates of investment leading to increasing divergences of service provision across the institution
  • Financial constraints: the University faces significant financial pressures, and at present it is difficult for us to take decisions to provide services in a more efficient way
  • Impact on staff: the University already experiences difficulties in recruitment, with consistent complaints about workload and lack of investment in our services – both by professional services and academics
  • Lack of alignment between investment and need: piecemeal investment does not allow us to effectively respond to strategic challenges

A more detailed summary of the findings is available for staff (SSO required).

Next steps

Throughout Michaelmas term 2023, the findings of the analysis phase of the Strategic Review are being shared with leadership teams and governance groups across the University.

Feedback is being sought on whether professional services and academic colleagues recognise the assumptions and findings of the analysis phase; and suggestions will be sought about what might be done to address the underlying issues.

Proposals for addressing the challenges will then be brought forward for further consultation from Hilary term 2024.

Contact us


The Professional Services Together team:

pst@admin.ox.ac.uk

University Offices, Wellington Square, Oxford OX1 2JD