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3 factors driving FE Colleges’ engagement with Benchmarking right now

Benchmarking. Everyone in education knows the benefits. It’s a vital tool when it comes to supporting students and improving outcomes. And it’s also a vital tool for college leadership teams, as they target operational effectiveness and financial sustainability. But why is benchmarking in Further Education (FE) such a hot topic, right now? Tribal’s benchmarking team has been speaking to FE leaders to find out…

Timing

Benchmarking is undoubtedly a valuable exercise at any point in a college’s journey, but the recent strong interest in Tribal’s benchmarking service isn’t without reason. Many colleges in the sector are now 2-3 years post-merger following the Area Review process. And as the dust settles on this period of mass upheaval, college leadership teams are seizing the opportunity to look ahead. They want to ensure they are effectively managing their cost base and making the right strategic decisions. A proven way to do this is to benchmark financial and operational performance against other colleges in the sector, as David Rothwell, Deputy Principal, Finance & Resources at Nelson and Colne College Group, explained in a recent interview:

… in terms of looking forward post-merger… We were halfway through the first five years of merger, and this benchmarking exercise helps inform decision-making to take us forward for the next three years. It’s an important input into informing the college's transformational journey and medium-to-long-term strategy.” 

Stewart Cross, Director of Integration and Information, Capital City College Group, is also looking forwards and using benchmarking to identify priorities:

"We’ve got to that stage in our post-merger recovery where we are now looking really closely at how we get that final 20% of efficiency that will take us into a more comfortable financial position. And we know (Benchmarking) can tell us which of our departments are more or less efficient, and what the underlying reasons are behind any lack of efficiency in our delivery - is it down to over management; is it down to the salaries being too high; is it down to a combination of those; is it down to too many staff; is it down to a balance between hourly-paid staff and salaried staff? We're pretty convinced that there is something in that last one, and this will greatly help us formulate our views on that."  [Watch the interview]

This sentiment was echoed in all of the interviews we conducted with college leaders who have recently engaged in benchmarking activity. Keen to debunk the criticism that the FE sector is reactive – they are using benchmarking as a way to demonstrate the ‘forward-thinking’ in their action planning, as Julian Wood, Deputy Principal Corporate Resources at Wiltshire College & University Centre, summarises:

"At one level, what [benchmarking] has done is to challenge, and also confirm, our instinctive understanding of the challenges facing the college financially, and what is driving those. At the same time, it has presented data in a format that is effectively a call-to-action, because it helps identify where we need to take action… it also gives us a signpost to where to stop pushing and looking. So, it's really helping to prioritise our efforts, in terms of driving efficiency, on the biggest gaps that the data reveals between ourselves and those high quality, efficient providers."

Another ‘timing’ driver has been the global Covid-19 pandemic. Like so many other processes, benchmarking has been carried out remotely in the last 12 months, proving that colleges can get enormous value from a discreet and objective service that doesn’t take up the valuable time and resources of your leadership team – if you outsource to the right partner.

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Finance

The government has recently indicated that some investment in the sector is on the horizon – and it has many FE leaders breathing a sigh of relief. But whether colleges are looking to push on from periods of financial difficulty, or are enjoying good financial health, all leaders are trying to de-risk an uncertain and pressured financial environment. The ability to demonstrate that the college’s cost base is being effectively measured and managed has never been more important.

FE leaders know that this requires much more than the internal analysis of the college’s finance record and audit data to identify ways to cut costs. Which is why Tribal’s sector-specific benchmarking considers hundreds of FE metrics to produce sophisticated, granular analysis that identifies opportunities to deliver operational improvement across the whole college.

"Ultimately this [Tribal Benchmarking] is a tool designed to do a very specific task and it does it in a very helpful, clear, objective way. What we’ve got with that is some helpful comparison and granularity in terms of how we’re operating financially as an organisation to support any of our detailed conversations."

Jon Rollings, Chief Operating Officer at Greater Brighton Metropolitan College

Following close examination of your numbers and your resources, Tribal’s benchmarking team translates the numbers into a story for your college to help shape action planning. For some colleges, this narrative might mean justification for investment in safeguarding and wellbeing, explanations for comparatively high maintenance costs due to listed buildings in the portfolio, or the quality strategy behind a higher ratio of staff cost-to-income than the FE Commissioner’s benchmark. Ultimately, it provides the financial insight your decision-makers need to challenge stakeholder assumptions and drive organisational investment. David Rothwell, summarises:

“The benefits from that narrative and dialogue itself, just in terms of helping raise understanding and visibility, provided a really helpful piece of CPD; that external facilitation just helps. It’s an independent source of assurance, it’s objective, specialist and credible.”

Where colleges have previously relied on comparing finance records to benchmark their operations, they find Tribal’s approach to benchmarking a transformational experience. Ian Rule, Interim Vice Principal, Finance and Planning at Richmond upon Thames College, explains:

“What we like with the Tribal model is that we get down into the college - it’s not just high-level financial health information. We didn't just benchmark the financials; we didn't just benchmark the budget; we did a construct of the two... it has helped sharpen internal contribution accounting, financial performance, and curriculum areas, as well as confirming or challenging us on how much we're spending on certain central services.”  [Interview extracts transcript]

The process often confirms widely held beliefs, or assumptions, providing evidence for what should be done – but without fail, every benchmarking project also uncovers a financial opportunity that has yet to be identified.

Data

The third reason there has been a recent upwards trend in the number of FE colleges turning to Tribal Benchmarking, is the wealth of good quality, easily accessible data now available to leadership and management teams. Where benchmarking was once considered a labour-intensive, onerous task in terms of generating the data to be analysed and compared – now it’s a question of running accurate, automated reports.

Similarly, Tribal ensures that the outputs of its benchmarking process are easy to digest and inform the college’s action plan. David Rothwell explains the value of this process:

“The Tribal methodology, dissects the data, re-stitches it, represents it, and then feeds it back in the tabulated report that’s insightful and easy and clear to follow - it’s well structured and presented and packaged together in bite-sized chunks so you start from the organisational level and drill down tier by tier into teaching and non-teaching areas and down further to operational area level, etc. It satisfies a range of different needs and appetites – individual senior leaders and governors have different requirements.”

The time-to-value is also much shorter than it used to be, with many FE colleges able to demonstrate how benchmarking is shaping their action planning within 6 weeks of kicking off the project.

In our next blog, we’ll be looking at how the global pandemic has helped to shape Tribal’s benchmarking service to make it even easier for FE colleges to engage with the process and enjoy the many benefits.

In the meantime, discover how FE leaders are using Benchmarking to manage their cost base and drive their action planning:

Find out more