We need to talk about risk

Chris Taylor, senior consultant, Uniac shares insight into the increasing presence of risk in higher education and invites providers to take part in their benchmarking exercise on risk management. 

What does risk management look like in your institution? Be honest. Do eyes roll and gazes shift when the annual review of the risk register rolls around? Are the risks on the page the risks you are really dealing with every day? Is risk management the preserve of one individual, buried away in central admin and dusted off only to meet the ever predictable demands of the committee cycle? Do you only do it because Hefce says so in the Memorandum of Assurance?

Chances are, if we are honest, that ‘Yes’ will be the answer to at least one of these questions some of the time.

But we are clearly entering an era when the previously ‘high impact/low likelihood’ risk event seems to be a more present danger; from terrorism and fire to the challenges of Brexit and changing immigration requirements. At the very least we have been reminded of the need to ensure we effectively mitigate key risks across all areas. In that context, are we in the higher education sector really doing enough to ensure highly effective risk management processes that genuinely add value and protect the interests of everyone in higher education? We’d like your help to find out.

In all institutions that we interact with the main risk management tool that is used is a risk register; however, even the form of a corporate risk register can vary widely. Different institutions have significantly varying risk frameworks, with some requiring risk registers for all functional units to a fairly low level within the institution, or others where the only requirement is for there to be a corporate register. Additional elements such as risk appetite are implicit in some institutions, whereas others have built up complex matrices to assess the appetite for a particular type of risk.

Now, there is no right or wrong answer to how risk is managed – it is about ensuring that the process supports the institution in delivering its strategic aims and adds the value that Hefce and others, like the Financial Reporting Council, wish to see. Clearly, it must also be in keeping with the institutional culture and fit with other management practices. So, the purpose of our benchmarking exercise is to understand how and where institutions gain most value from risk management, and to set this alongside a review of the frameworks, processes and templates that are used.

The exercise will be based on discussions with interested parties, including non-executives on university boards, the chairs of audit committees, senior managers within institutions, and those who have operational responsibility for risk management. There will also be some desk-based work looking at different institutions’ risk policies and practices. We will also be looking outside of the higher education sector to draw in practices that could add value.

The work will result in a comprehensive report which will provide an overview of the findings of the work and will be of value to institutions in assessing their current practices and providing food for thought with respect to ways in which they can optimise the value gained from risk management within their organisation.

We are keen to involve as many providers as possible. We know how diverse the sector is and that the strength of such an exercise will be enhanced the more participants we have and the better able we are to reflect and account for that diversity.

Jean Brown (jbrown@uniac.co.uk 0161 247 2851) and Richard Young (ryoung@uniac.co.uk) from Uniac will be leading on the benchmarking exercise. Please do get in touch with them if you would like to take part.

Join us at the Leadership Foundation’s first national conference for governors of HEIs and members of the professional support teams who work with governors on Thursday 30 November 2017, Central London. To find out more, click here

Uniac is a shared internal audit and assurance service for universities – some of whom own Uniac and some who are clients. To find out more please visit their website: www.uniac.co.uk