Higher education institutions’ reliance on technology during pandemic highlights new operational risk for sector

Operational risk in higher education institutions (HEIs) has heightened as a result of the pandemic, according to analysis from RSM UK’s latest education risk register. 

Findings revealed that the top three risk areas for HEIs include finance, organisational operations and student numbers, with operational risk appearing in the top three for the first time. As a result of the pandemic, this renewed focus on safeguarding, wellbeing, business continuity, and environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues is now evident as key risks.

After analysing 117 risk registers from further education (FE) organisations, HEIs, academy trusts and independent schools, operational risks accounted for 14 per cent of total risks, highlighting the severity that the pandemic has had on the wider education sector.

Analysis also found that HEIs recorded the highest number of high risks from within the wider education sector, with a total of 18 per cent, in comparison to FE organisations (15 per cent), academy trusts (12 per cent), and independent schools (11 per cent).

Lisa Randall, head of higher education at RSM UK, said: ‘Higher education institutions (HEIs) have had to adopt an agile framework in order to better manage operational risks which have arisen as a result of the pandemic, in particular the challenge of remote learning and lockdowns. As such, HEIs have become even more reliant on technology to engage with their key stakeholders – students, bringing about added pressures on student recruitment, retention and income.

‘However, the speed at which HEIs responded to the pandemic lent itself to swift transformative plans in terms of financial planning and business continuity, with organisations prepared to manage and adapt to ongoing and future challenges. This agile approach, coupled with added focus on operational risk, as well as how HEIs might gain ongoing assurance over the management of key operational risks, has meant that HEIs have taken positive steps and applied the lessons learned from the pandemic to consider longer-term issues such as safeguarding and wellbeing to ensure their business model is sustainable.