Improving risk management strategies in higher education

 

How can an enterprise approach to risk management help higher education (HE) institutions take effective action to reduce risks and improve processes? Taking an ‘enterprise’ approach doesn’t mean you sidestep empathy - it means responding to issues and challenges proactively and efficiently.

Improving risk management

So while implementing a standard enterprise risk management (ERM) plan is a step in the right direction, it isn’t enough. Many institutions are reimagining how they look at risk entirely; here’s how to improve your risk management strategies. 

Identify potential risks

The first step to improve any risk management strategy is to identify the potential risks already at play, which is no small feat. Departments, faculties and schools will need to collaborate to better understand the issues driving various risks and how to approach them holistically.

Effective risk management should ensure management and governance structures are focused on the areas that matter. You should take time to understand the risks the students  and staff face and how they’re being managed. Are the actions to mitigate risk having an impact?

From reputational risk from poorly handled reports to business model risks affecting your institution’s ability to sustain itself. When it comes to risk universities like your face, there’s a lot to consider. They include (but aren’t limited to): 

  • Business model risks: Challenges an institution’s ability to generate enough revenue to operate and sustain itself. New approaches might be necessary to outpace other agile institutions. 
  • Operating model risks: Operating model risks derive from inadequate processes, people and systems. These drastically affect an institution's ability to function efficiently, trickling down into other possible risks. 
  • Enrollment supply risks: In the absence of consistent student enrollment, tuition-dependent institutions simply can’t sustain their financial health and fund operations. With a declining student population due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is one to watch.
  • Compliance risks: Failure to meet compliance standards can lead to consequences ranging from loss of funding, loss of accreditation or in extreme cases; legal action. 
  • Reputation risks: Institutions with reputational awareness and control over their increasing presence in the media can reduce the risk. Without a strategy, it can greatly impact enrollment, finances and overall operation. 
  • Legal and financial risks: Relating to student drop out rates, staff attrition and turnover and settlement payments.

Within every step of developing a risk management program, teams should revisit their institution's strategy, goals and history. Colleges and universities are finding they need more defined infrastructure, governance, data, processes and culture to be proactive about threats (and opportunities) that present themselves. It's no secret there’s a need for innovation and collaboration across all departments of HE institutions.

However, with the Office for Students’ (OfS) latest annual review highlighting mental health, hate crime and sexual misconduct as some of the biggest areas of concern, it’s clear where your focus should be. These impact not only the wider team and other departments but students too. 

Take time to evaluate, review and document existing processes and procedures to develop more robust risk management strategies, and potential policy change, across the board. 

Evaluation and embracing evolution 

The current way of working gives HE Institutions an opportunity to rethink how they achieve their education and research missions.  Given the breadth of risks facing the educational sector, institutions should keep a watchful eye on concerning trends but also take time to understand their own strategic goals and mission to help encourage wider change. 

There are a number of unknowns at the moment, but the crisis does force people and behaviour to become a key priority of organisations. Thoughtful consideration at this stage could be your point of difference when it comes to attracting new student populations and key staff. 

The challenge universities face is they’re made up of several departments and silos - the key for risk managers is to break down those silos. Start developing shared definitions for risk management terms as they’ll become important in the next step, which is monitoring and reviewing the risk management plan.

Risk management should also focus on establishing accessible investigation and reporting policies and visible and accessible processes too. Complaints, risks and incidents often go unreported because there’s no clear reporting process in place or because the process hasn’t been communicated effectively. 

As a result, these issues can have a domino effect, creating other risks in the institution that need attention. For example, an unaddressed report can not only highlight safety risks on campus but can also grow into a reputational and enrollment supply risk if not handled appropriately and actioned.

It’s time now for institutions to embrace change and think outside the box for ways to manage risks and innovate processes to remain agile in changing circumstances.

Implementation and involvement

When pioneering change, you have to worry about uprooting processes that have been in place for decades and also the challenge of ensuring buy-in.

Platforms, systems and services. There’s a multitude of options for HE institutions looking to propagate change. The most important part is communicating the benefits and disadvantages back to your team, letting them get a feel for the platform that could potentially revolutionise the way certain risks are handled.

Culture Shift is an award-winning online reporting platform designed to give any victim-survivor an environment where they can feel safe and listened to - at a time and place they feel most comfortable. We’re passionate about a more inclusive learning environment and both students and staff can benefit from more automated processes. That’s why we’ll also help you craft a business case for change. 

The cost of being passive and not investing in student-focused solutions will weigh more on the institution's pockets in the future. You can have the science of risk management down to an art, but you also need others in the institution to be involved for a higher chance of success. 

Redefining university culture

Despite the progress that HE institutions have made, there’s still more to accomplish to drive positive change across the educational sector. Risk management strategies start with redefining the very ethos they’re based on.

A particular theme which emerged from Universities UK (UUK) research is, while there’s been good progress in responding to sexual harassment and gender-based violence, less priority has been given to tackle other forms of harassment. This includes racial harassment and hate crimes.

Institutions have a responsibility and commitment to ensure a welcoming and inclusive environment for students of all genders, backgrounds and ethnicities - giving them what they need to flourish. In response to the findings, UUK has set out six recommendations for universities to consider to make further progress:

  1. Ensure accountability for tackling harassment and hate crime sits at senior management level. Just under half of responding institutions indicated this was currently the case.
  2. Involve responding students, reporting students and bystanders to develop and improve response strategies. Only 32% of universities currently involve them in developing an institutional strategic response.
  3. Setting all students, including pre-arrival, with clear behavioural expectations. Adopt a proactive and preventative approach and outline potential sanctions if this is breached.
  4. Allocate resources for this part of the strategic planning process. A staggering 45% of the universities surveyed identified a lack of resources as a key barrier to enhancing progress.
  5. Ensure regular reports and reviews to governing bodies or committees. This data is invaluable for decision-making. 
  6. Make sure the principles and priority status are granted to all forms of sexual misconduct, harassment and hate crimes. 

HE institutions might not have all the answers but there are systems and services which can help. Having risk management strategies ironed out is important. However, having more efficient and modern processes in place can be just the upgrade you need. 

Improve risk management and drive efficiency in your institution

Enabling meaningful culture change is notoriously difficult and takes time, but HE institutions have an opportunity to radically rethink how to deliver exceptional student experience and reduce risk. We've recently launched a risk assessment framework, which is just one of the ways Culture Shift can guide you through creating positive change in your institution. Contact us today to find out more. 

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