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Governance 

08. Risk management

Download the PDF Risk management


Introduction and aim

This briefing note looks at risk management. It introduces the concepts of risk and uncertainty, sources of risk, risk appetite and assessing risk; it considers the role of the governing body and risk, and what can go wrong.

The future is unclear

The operation of any organisation, including higher education institutions, involves uncertainty and risk. Because the future operating environment cannot be fully known, the outcomes of an institution’s actions are unable to be forecast with certainty. For example, future policy changes by governments can lead to significant discontinuities and how competitors subsequently react can magnify their impact on individual institutions.

As a general observation the external environment for higher education institutions has become less stable. This means the assessment and mitigation of risk and uncertainty is more difficult, but equally more important.

Risk

Although often used interchangeably, it is possible to distinguish between risk and uncertainty. Risk refers to known events, against which it is possible to attach an assessment of the likely resulting loss or gain should the risk materialise. In passing it is important to note that although risks are generally discussed in terms of negative outcomes, risks (unforeseen events or unanticipated degrees of change) may result in opportunities. For example, the freehold of a building in a strategically important location to the institution suddenly and unexpectedly is offered for sale. A related question is then whether the institution is in a position to take advantage of the unforeseen opportunity?

Uncertainty

Uncertainty has most recently been associated with ‘black swan’ events: highly improbable and unpredicted events. Illustrated by the financial crisis of 2007/08 such events have been described as tail risks (ie at the end of the distribution of an event curve) and very rare. True uncertainty by its very nature cannot be assessed.

Looking to the future

While some events can be foreseen, there are equally others that are very difficult or impossible to predict, let alone assess their likely impact. For instance, there may be genuine uncertainty about future government policy suggesting that beyond the immediate time horizon a key aspect of the operating environment cannot be reliably foreseen. As a result institutions may need to take a contingency approach and prepare for a number of different outcomes.

Risk management

Risk management is a process by which risks are identified and managed. It starts by seeking to identify and understand the risks associated with a given action, looks at the likely impact should the risk materialise and then considers how the risks can be reduced through proactive management.

Sources of risk

There are different sources of risk that institutions need to be aware of, and seek to manage. Further, one event may lead to a single risk or a set-off to a chain of multiple risks. Risks once they materialise can be very difficult to manage. Potential sources of risk include:

  • Strategic risks: those relating to decisions about the future direction of the institution. The Scottish Code of Higher Education Good Governance points out such risks ‘could threaten the sustainability of the institution’, and advocates that ‘institutions must adopt a risk-based approach to strategic planning.’1 ie based on knowing and evaluating risk, and being able to manage its potential impact.
  • Financial risks: these may result from poor budgeting and expenditure controls (operational risks), but may equally result from cost over-spends on major projects involving significant amounts of capital expenditure. Large-scale and complex projects, with tight timelines, can lead to difficulties without careful and effective procurement and project management.
  • Reputational risks: could result from, for example, adverse publicity arising from a failure of academic standards and quality, or as the result of being associated with accepting a donation that compromises the institution’s values. Both examples have occurred with UK institutions.

Risk appetite

The term risk appetite describes the extent to which a governing body is prepared to tolerate risk. If the governing body’s risk appetite is low, it has a low tolerance of risk; whereas if the risk appetite is high their tolerance of risk is much greater.

The appetite to take risks does not necessarily remain fixed, and may change with the operating context and the extent to which future income streams are judged more or less certain. The institution’s executive team should have give careful consideration to the likely risk appetite of the governing body, before placing before the governing body specific proposals for which it is seeking approval.

Assessing risk

A meaningful assessment of risk is not easy. Approaches commonly categorise risk by using a matrix which allows a hierarchy of risk to be identified and the greatest attention given to those risks deemed to have the largest potential impact and deemed most likely to occur.

Typically, the process involves identifying and assessing risks based on their potential impact as high, medium, or low. A high risk being one has the potential to have a widespread and significant impact on the institution.

Alongside impact, the likelihood of the risk occurring is also commonly assessed; again using the classification of high, medium, or low. Those risks most likely to occur are rated as having a high likelihood.

Mitigation of risks

Risks judged to have a high impact and a high likelihood of occurrence should receive management particular attention, and actions identified that can mitigate (reduce) the risk (ie proactive actions that reduce the impact/ likelihood of the event).

In assessing the extent to which action can be taken to mitigate a high impact/likelihood risk, there is a need to distinguish between what lies within the institution’s control and what lies outside. For example, an individual institution is unlikely to be able to change national policy, but may well be able to take internally focused actions which reduce the impact of a policy change should it occur.

Governing bodies and risk

Governing bodies need to assure themselves of the following:

  • There is a proactive and effective process for identifying potential risks
  • Key areas of risk have not been overlooked
  • A detailed and objective assessment and evaluation of the identified risks, their impact and likelihood has been undertaken
  • There is a clear process for selecting the most ‘critical’ risks, and that these are then given appropriate attention
  • Actions to mitigate the risks have been identified and have been implemented
  • The risks are understood and managed at all relevant levels in the organisation

Once the process for assessing risk has been agreed it is important that the key risks are regularly reviewed to ensure that the risk list (register) remains current. It is important that the governing body satisfies itself that the agreed actions to mitigate the key risks are being implemented and they do actually reduce the identified risk.

More than compliance

Risk management is not always viewed as the most engaging, or interesting topic. As a result there is a danger that although an assessment of risk is carried out it is largely about compliance and essentially a box-ticking exercise.

While such an approach may technically comply with the requirements placed on the institution, it is unlikely to mean risks are well understood and their management embedded within the behaviours and culture of the organisation. Without such engagement, it’s unlikely that the institution’s approach to risk management will be sufficient to ensure that effective actions to manage the risk have been taken.

What can go wrong

There are a number of areas - not necessarily mutually exclusive - where problems can arise:

  • Failure to control the head of institution: this may result from a lack of competence on the part of the governing body, or their unwillingness to effectively question and challenge proposals made by the executive. A failure to control may also potentially relate to the shared responsibility (with senate or equivalent) for academic governance and emphasise the importance of the governing body being engaged in those academic decisions; which carry risks. To avoid this source of risk the governing body does need to be alert to the academic business of higher education.
  • Risk blindness: the failure of the governing body to engage with major risks, and being unaware that a course of action runs significant financial or reputation risks. Cases of reputational risk arising from failures of academic standards and quality can particularly damaging to an institution.
  • Failure to question actions, which have previously led to success when faced with a changed operating environment: previously successful strategies may become increasingly inappropriate if there are significant shifts in the operating environment. Governing bodies can be reluctant to question actions when things seem to be going well, and have previously been successful.
  • Weak leadership: a failure on behalf of the governing body to ensure risk management is taken sufficient seriously and appropriately addressed by institution’s management. As noted earlier, the need is to ensure the approach is not simply one of ticking the box compliance, but one that is embedded in the institution’s culture and behaviours.
  • Poor use of internal audit: the internal audit service (either internal function or provided externally) should be regularly looking at the key risks. The effectiveness of internal audit does however just rely upon looking at most the important areas of risk, but also requires an assessment of sufficient depth to provide the governing body (generally via its audit committee) with assurance that the risk is being effectively managed. If the resources of an internal audit are poorly directed or the work has insufficient depth the governing body will not be able to rely on the work for the purposes of assurance. A related issue can be the relatively low status of an internal audit function, or the closeness of an external internal auditor to the institution’s head of finance. Both may reduce the function’s effectiveness.

Questions to consider

  • Does the institution have a clear approach to risk management?
  • Are risks clearly identified and evaluated?
  • Are mitigating actions taken to manage key risks?
  • Are the mitigating actions reviewed to judge their effectiveness?
  • Does the risk management process extend beyond the needs of compliance?
  • Is the internal auditor function used effectively in reviewing key areas of risk?

End notes and further reading

  1. The Scottish Code of Good Higher Education Governance, 18 July 2013 available from www.scottishuniversitygovernance.ac.uk


September 2014
E: david.williams@lfhe.ac.uk
W: www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance
@LF4HE

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      3. Download MDR3: Emotional Intelligence, Personal Impact and Personal Effectiveness
      4. Download MDR4: Lean Management: Doing more with less
      5. Download MDR5: The Current HE Context: Drivers for change
      6. Download MDR6: Commercial Skills for Academics and Researchers
      7. MDR7: Caught in the Middle
        1. MDR7 Contents
        2. Download MDR7: Caught in the Middle
      8. Download MDR8: Working with Academic Motivation and Prestige
    7. Knowledge Bank
    8. Membership community
      1. Members' Directory
    9. MASHEIN
      1. MASHEIN Members
    10. Ten great reasons to be a Leadership Foundation member
      1. #10GreatReasons1
      2. #10GreatReasons2
      3. #10GreatReasons3
      4. #10GreatReasons4

Governance

Aaron Porter

Aaron Porter

Associate Director, Governance

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David Williams

David Williams

Governance Web Editor

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Welcome...

We are a membership organisation of and for a sector that has some of the brightest minds in the UK.

 

Our members are key to our strategy and form a community of higher education institutions with a clear commitment to and experience of developing leadership, governance and management capabilities at all levels. Academic and professional services staff from member institutions contribute to our programmes, projects and research and advise on benefits and services.

 

Find out more about Membership

 

  • Membership benefits

    • 25% discount on our open and in-house programmes and consultancy
    • a free consultancy day
    • exclusive access to research publications, development resources and funding opportunities
    • free regional events
    • funding for Staff Development Forum and MASHEIN activity
    • members’ mailing lists, newsletters and magazine
    • participation in our development networks

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  • How to join

    • Membership is open to all higher education providers and related sector organisations on an annual or three-yearly subscription basis.
    • We have 154 members with around a third taking advantage of the 10% discount offered by three-year subscriptions.

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  • Membership benefits

    • Research and innovation: Access to our latest, highly-valued research, Leadership Insights, Getting to Grips series and practical development project resources.
    • More…

    • Management Development Resources: Flexible workshop materials on key leadership and management development topics, for you to deliver in-house to suit your own contexts NEW: ‘Caught in the Middle’. 
    • More…

    • The Knowledge Bank: Save time with these extensive multi-media training resources for HR, staff development and OD professionals, covering key leadership and management theory and practice.
    • More…

  • Get in touch

    Meet the membership team, your national and regional contacts in the UK and Ireland, and LF networks.

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Leadership Foundation for Higher Education
Peer House, 8-14 Verulam Street
London WC1X 8LZ

T: 020 3468 4810     F: 020 3468 4811

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