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From student to Board: risk and retention

13 Nov 2020 | Kim Ansell Kim Ansell asks how higher education can put in place a long-term risk strategy and manage critical risks in the short term

In our recent report Governing well, with and beyond COVID-19: Governance briefing 2020-21 we recommended that governing bodies and executive teams ask themselves, “How is our governing body navigating the governance/management boundary, especially on matters of risk, strategy and transformation?” Kim Ansell does a deeper dive to consider how universities can put in place a long term risk strategy and manage critical risks in the short term.  

In recent weeks the media headlines and commentators have spoken of a looming student engagement and wellbeing crisis, with serious implications for retention. At the same time, most governing bodies are breathing a virtual sigh of relief in the recent round of governance meetings as student numbers have held up well, particularly UK undergraduate intakes. But what do governors and executive teams need to do now to ensure that the increased risk of student non-continuation continues to be managed, and that they have a holistic and long term approach to strategic risk, as life in HE continues to be complex and ever changing.

Students are having a university experience that is very different from their expectations, with constraints to their social interactions, and limited social networks, as well as managing their engagement in online learning for the most part. At the same time as students try to manage their expectations, most governing bodies and particularly finance committees will have scrutinised the interim financial returns submitted to the OfS on 30 October 2020, providing information on their 2020-year end positions and their forecasts for 2021. These two things are highly interconnected.

While there are not specific performance measures for student and key stakeholder perceptions of value for money from the OfS, it is highly likely that students will, at the end of their first term, be reflecting on their experience so far and whether they have had value for money. They will reflect on having spent far more of their time than expected (in many cases all), looking at a screen and trying to understand why it matters for them to keep going.

For governing bodies and executive teams, the short term actions are to understand/mitigate and understand/prepare.

Understand and Mitigate

Boards and Executive teams need to be assuring themselves that they are articulating value to students, helping them understand ‘why’ they should continue and establishing a vision that it is worth continuing. Perhaps a little obvious, but:

  • Checking in with students to understand current thinking, anything from pulse surveys to focus groups, in order to have a clear understanding of the percentage of students considering leaving. I heard of at least one university that has a telephone campaign with students
  • Ask, check and communicate. What is in place to help students who are struggling to cope and might otherwise slip away under the radar, particularly those who are not in university accommodation and therefore slightly closer or visible. What can we do to support international students to be comfortable staying, (as they often would), over the Christmas break, rather than risk them returning home and not coming back 
  • Consider, what can realistically and credibly be offered to students to secure student returns in the next term.

Understand and Prepare

While financial risk is clear, there are other risks – for example the risk that students who continue will have their experience impacted by the need for tutors to re-plan work, particularly group work, project work or collaborative assignments. In addition, the reputational risk that poor retention might have as an indicator of university performance is an important factor. (Of course this depends on what your key performance indicators are).

Governing bodies (particularly finance committees) also need to consider their reserves position, their investment in estates and study spaces and whether they are getting value for money from them in the same way as currently or in a different way. They might then model this, to understand and prepare for the impact on the university or college strategy.  These questions might be helpful:

  • What information do we have to understand the likely retention situation from January 2021 and where are the gaps? What other information do we need or can we get access to quickly?
  • What is the worst case scenario and have we stress tested this to understand the impact on financial sustainability and impact on the university strategy?
  • Are we currently reviewing our estates strategy and investments, and how will the governing body have oversight to consider the impact to sustainability of the university and its future strategy. AUDE (The Association of University Directors of Estates) spoke of this in their recent annual conference.

Breaking down organisational silos to prepare for such a potential and very real risk is essential to really understand the impact, but more importantly to put in place mitigations to prevent it. To ensure that approaches to improve retention are joined up, integrated and holistic has never been more important.

Finally, governing bodies and executive teams need to think holistically about their response to retention and the risk that it poses for the institution. It is likely that all universities have a series of disaggregated risks where there is a clear risk of financial impact if retention increases. But is that integrated with the risk to student satisfaction ratings, estates, partnerships with on campus providers of services, student wellbeing services and the sustainability of the Student Union.


Broadly, we have seen a slight trend to more ‘hands on’ governance since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as institutions grappled with the emerging risks and operating environment issues.  

Part of effective governance allows for a holistic approach to risk where the Board/Council is able to take information and data from various parts of the institution and look at it in an integrated way in the context of the overarching organisational strategy in order to see strategic risk beyond the process oriented approach of the risk register. Often referred to as Enterprise Risk Management there are a number of principles based tools which could help governing bodies consider risk more holistically, but the main features are:

  • The Board to move away from processing disaggregated risks in a register and think more strategically and in the context of the strategy. Making use of scenario planning
  • Have agreed objectives for risk management based on the organisations strategic aims
  • Ensure that discussions about risk are more than just financial e.g. reputational strategic, operational, compliance, resources and partnerships
  • Focus on changes in environment and how that will affect all aspects of the strategy
  • Create a risk aware culture and enable active management of risk rather than tick box management of risk.  Ensure that everyone realises that they are responsible for risk

Retention is a really ‘live’ example, immediately and long term, where balance needs to be achieved. For the long term, is it time for governors and the executive to have a bigger conversation about retention: I suggest two key questions to consider:

  • How does our institution move from seeing retention as a series of reports and numbers to a holistic and joined up practice?
  • What is the institution doing and what can it do to improve sense of identity/belonging and community to improve retention?

In many cases institutions will have strategies and practices in place that address these, but it is not often visible to the Board.  This type of discussion means that the board can work constructively with management to promote the future success of the organisation. It can help to ensure a high-level perspective on strategy, thus avoiding the ‘comfort zone of detail’.

Risk mitigation needs to be collaborative and understanding risk holistically requires trust and transparency, while continuing to maintain that boundary between governance and management. 

Kim Ansell, November 2020.

Kim Ansell is a panel member for 'Governance across borders – what can we learn from the nations?' at Advance  HE's Transforming Governance for a new normal: Governance Conference 2020, 20 November.

Note 1: two examples are:

  • Integrated Reporting Framework, used by a number of universities and across other sectors.
  • Strategic Scorecard, CIMA
  • COSO Enterprise Risk Management – Integrated Framework in 2004
  • Enterprise Risk Management: an emerging model for building shareholder value, A KPMG White Paper.

Connect Member Benefit Series November: Exceptional student retention

Throughout November, our Connect Benefit Series focuses on the theme of ‘Exceptional student retention’. As part of the series, we will host a webinar on 26 November entitled ‘How to support and retain the Covid-19 generation in higher education’. The webinar is free to all colleagues at Advance HE member institutions.

Book your place here.

All outputs of November’s Exceptional student retention theme, along with related resources and services can be found here.

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