Board assurance | A toolkit for higher education institutions

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What is a board assurance framework? What is meant by ‘assurance’? And why should we do assurance mapping? 

The higher education sector is in a period of change, with further uncertainties on the horizon in the form of post-Brexit and the post-18 review of education, as the Office for Students has taken on the regulation of higher education providers from 1 April 2018. The new regulator seeks to ensure the interests of students are prioritised whilst protecting and prioritising ‘institutional autonomy and academic freedom.’ 

The Office for Students (OfS), the new regulator of higher education in England, has published its regulatory framework. The framework sets out how the OfS will undertake its functions and provides guidance for registered providers on the continuing conditions of registration. 

Whilst the sector is used to significant change, institutions, particularly at governing body level, will look to ensure that risks associated with this new framework are recognised and managed. Importantly are we clear and comfortable with our model of assurance in this challenging environment? 

With the emerging higher education landscape with increased competition from both within and outside the sector, more than ever the fulfilment of these responsibilities requires effective arrangements for risk management, control, governance, value for money and robust arrangements for the quality of data.

As the primary body in providing assurance to the governing body on the adequacy and effectiveness of these arrangements, the audit committee or its equivalent needs to continually challenge its understanding of the risk profile and how assurance is captured and reported.

Most higher education institutions know the risks that they face and know the controls that they have in place that keep those risks to an acceptable level. But how do they know those controls are doing the job they should be? This is where the use of an assurance framework can help.

As your higher education institution will be aware, an effective board assurance framework is dependent on how successfully you have understood, mitigated and monitored the risks that your institution faces, but it is also important in identifying where your assurance needs are, current and future state. The development of a board assurance framework should be a logical extension of your existing risk management arrangements, and for a number of institutions, this is already embedded. It is timely to reflect on your existing risk management arrangements with a view to ensuring that they remain fit for purpose in the dynamic environment in which you are operating today and in the future.

We all know that the future presents a number of uncertainties that will need to be identified and, where possible, managed. Therefore, it is important that the audit committee, in providing its assurances to the governing body, is itself assured that the arrangements being put in place will be effective. The governing body also needs to be assured that they will not be criticised for failing to do something that by its nature (for example providing a healthy and safe environment for its students) should always be well managed.

We would therefore encourage all members of your institution’s governing body and associated committees to ask the question: ‘Are we comfortable with our assurance?’

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