Assigning personnel in a cost model without staff surveys

Assigning personnel in a cost model without staff surveys

Wow! I found out this morning that I can use my iPhone as a remote control for PowerPoint presentations….so I apologise in advance to any clients that I’m presenting to in the next few weeks…you will no doubt be my guinea pigs 🙂

Talking about clients, many of Pilbara Group’s university clients have asked the question on how best to assign personnel time to activities within their cost allocation models. This blog will take a look at some of the options available to Australian universities.

Staff Surveys

Surveying staff is always an option, however while it may result in a detailed division of labour between key activities, it will normally require significant effort to not only collect and enter the data into a cost allocation model, but also to maintain it on an on-going basis, especially when staff move between schools, faculties and/or research projects.

For those universities who like this idea, ensure that you select software that will allow you to set up individual logins for either all staff or nominated key staff that restricts the user to only viewing a subset of the model. This not only removes the burden on model owners to collect and enter the data, but also provides a degree of privacy relating to time allocation splits. For example a Dean of a School could have a login that provides him or her with the ability to view their own School’s allocations, but is restricted from viewing any other School’s splits.

Academic Workload Profiles

Many universities have elected to base activity allocations on the academic workload profiles of their staff.

What is an academic workload profile?
Each university will have set a maximum number of annual ‘allocatable’ hours for a typical staff member. For the sake of this article, let’s assume that it is set to 1640 hours (approximately based on a 37.5 hour week less six weeks of holiday and sick leave and 11 days of public holidays). Each academic staff member will have a work function of ‘Teaching Only’, ‘Research Only’, or ‘Teaching and Research’. For those staff belonging to the Teaching and Research category, academic workload profiles are set to describe the split of time between Teaching, Research, Community Service and where applicable, Leadership and/or Administration.

It is important to note that the Teaching component covers a number of activities and not just the time spent performing subject delivery (including off-campus, off-shore, online and face-to-face). It also needs to encompass:

  • subject / course development;
  • subject / course administration and co-ordination, including arranging practicums and other industry placements;
  • preparation of teaching materials;
  • supervision of teaching staff;
  • supervision of non-undergraduate students;
  • supervision of undergraduate students undertaking research projects or fieldwork;
  • preparing and marking of exams and other forms of student assessment; and
  • student contact / consultation outside of the classroom.

In addition to the time spent conducting research, the Research component also needs to encompass the time spent preparing grant applications and satisfying internal and external research reporting requirements.

How can academic workload profiles be used in a cost model?

There are a number of ways to use academic workload information to determine activity time splits, including:

  • If the academic workload profile is held in an electronic format, then it can be directly imported into the cost model, removing the need to survey individuals but still providing the benefit of individual allocations.
  • Some universities have profile averages at the School and Award Level, for example:
  • For those universities where this level of data is not yet available, using software that allows an iterative approach to refining the data is a good idea. As can been from a screenshot below, this would start with the entry of a university wide allocation – in this case 70% Teaching, 3% Admin, 2% Community Service and 25% Research. Faculties can then refine this split – for example, in the Faculty of Engineering there is a greater focus on research with 24% Teaching, 19% Admin, 4% Community Service and 53% Research.
  • If authorized users were to click on the Faculty of Engineering, they would be able to enter School-specific percentages, below that Award Level percentages, and finally if available, individual percentage splits.
  • One of the benefits of this approach is that a cost model can be rapidly developed (in around six weeks) and then refined over time. For example during the initial model build, the university-wide split may be used. During the refinement phase, faculties can be invited to add in their specific splits, followed by Schools at yet a later date and so on.

Hours Delivery Method

Another alternative is to use your costing software to calculate the effort spent on teaching and then send the remaining (unused) time to Research and Community Service etc. based on predetermined splits.

For example, if the subjects / courses taught by a particular school added up to 100,000 delivery hours per year (noting that delivery hours takes into account all the other activities related to teaching), and there were 100 full time equivalent (FTE) academic staff performing teaching duties within that School, then 164,000 hours (100 FTE x 1640 hours/FTE) less 100,000 hours of teaching delivery leaves 64,000 hours to be split between Research and Community Service. If that School had nominated this split to be 90% / 10%, then 57,600 hours would go to Research and 6,400 hours to Community Service. This then works out as an overall split of 61% Teaching, 35% Research and 4% Community Service.

While this method still relies on an estimation of the split between Research and other activities, the time spent on teaching delivery is based on a relatively robust formula using timetable data as one of the primary inputs (including hours of lectures, tutorials, labs, practicums etc). The remaining inputs come from a series of business rules regarding preparation times (e.g. a two hour lecture requires two hours of preparation, but only 30 minutes for repeats of the same lecture), unit administration (e.g. 30 hours per undergraduate unit), and student consultation time (e.g. 1.5 hours per student per semester for undergraduates, 15 hours per post-graduate student etc). These business rules can be set at the faculty, school, year (1st year, 2nd year etc) or unit level, allowing universities to refine the calculation of delivery hours to any desired degree.

In theory this is a good alternative to using surveys and academic workload profiles, however it does rely on being able to use quality timetabling data. Without this, the basis for the Hours Delivery calculations is degraded and as such, the reliability of the remaining time available for Research, compromised.


We know from experience that many universities believe they aren’t in a position to build a robust cost model as they view the challenge of personnel allocations as a brick wall where the effort required to scale it outweighs many of the advantages gained from having a cost model.

My aim was to provide you with a degree of knowledge and comfort that there are alternatives out there other than surveying academic staff that:
  • do not require significant effort to collect and/or maintain;
  • allow universities to refine and enhance their model at their own pace, rather than waiting until such time as the ‘perfect’ data is available; and
  • provide universities with results that they can start using within weeks, not months.
By the way, the allocation of general or non-academic staff is just as easy but those options will have to be the topic for another blog…..