How higher education audit teams can manage the ’new normal’
The year 2020 which, ironically, also represents perfect hindsight, brought with it turmoil that shook up industries across the board. Nearly every sector experienced disruption and persisting challenges amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. However, few have experienced as radical a transformation as the higher education sector, expressed Hersh Shah CEO, India Affiliate of Institute of Risk Management, UK (IRM India). In mid-march, universities and educational institutions the world over closed their campuses, sent the students home and began the transition to digital methods of pedagogy. Not quite knowing what to expect back then, with little data available about Covid-19, most institutions now believe that campuses will likely remain closed until the end of this year. Hersh Shah, CEO, India Affiliate of Institute of Risk Management, UK (IRM India), and Arnab Kumar Laha, Strategic Advisory Board Member, IRM India, and Professor, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (Specializations: Data Analytics, Quality Management and Risk Management) share their views on the "new normal" in the field of higher education due to COVID 19 pandemic.
The shock of the Covid-19 crisis reverberated throughout the education sector. Operational models had to be modified practically overnight and risk profiles were flipped upside-down. While higher education had already been heading towards digital delivery for years, the pandemic and subsequent lockdown transformed this shift from a crawl to a sprint. The sector was compelled to evolve at a pace that it had not foreseen while battling challenges no one had imagined before.
Much like other sectors, higher education has also learned a valuable lesson from the pandemic about anticipating the unanticipated. Institutions are realising the value of a robust risk framework and a crisis-ready operational structure. As these organisations navigate the COVID-19 crisis, it is vital for them to have audit teams that can reliably predict and review risk events, and recommend steps for mitigation and response improvement. In doing so, they will have to be mindful of the changes the virus has wrought, to “business as usual”. Here is how audit teams can manage the “new normal” and risk-proof their organisations:
New SOPs for the new normal
One of the stated goals in an academic audit exercise is to ensure compliance with a set of procedures, typically specified by the regulator which, in the case of India, would be UGC/ AICTE/Education Boards, etc. COVID-19 has introduced changes in education delivery and assessment that are fundamental in nature but are not a part of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) of these organizations. Audit teams will have to determine if the introduced changes have helped the academic organization attain its objectives and whether these have helped in reducing the adverse impact of the pandemic. If the data demonstrate that the modified operations have helped the organization steer through the crisis situation, while maintaining a high level of attainment of its objectives and mitigating the risks, the audit team can help the organization create a 'new normal' by adapting the SOPs to the changed realities. These new SOPs would help the organization become more resilient against risks of similar kind in the future.
Evolving for the future
An often unstated goal of academic audits is to identify opportunities for improvement for the organization. This crisis has led organizations to freely experiment with various features of the academic curriculum, content delivery, and assessment. An efficient audit exercise would be able to identify the results of these experiments, and the reasons behind their successes and failures. By examining these findings carefully, the audit teams would be able to suggest improvement opportunities that would help the organization navigate the 'new normal' better.
Managing change and creating advocates
It is well known that people often resist change. Whenever any organisation implements new regulations, processes or controls, it is common for some of the stakeholders to challenge them. In rolling out new pandemic-influenced protocols, audit teams will also encounter resistance, from some stakeholders who feel there are too many restrictions, or that the risks do not merit the measures taken. Audit teams must learn to be diplomats, and utilise their interpersonal skills to persuade stakeholders about the value and utility of their recommendations, and create allies who will influence others and help them in instituting new procedures.
Risk management has been a very niche subject until recently, however, the pandemic has thrust the discipline into the spotlight. Most higher education institutions, particularly in India, do not have a systematic way of managing risk. The present crisis has amply demonstrated the need for these institutions to adopt Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) as a systematic way to navigate the VUCA world. ERM would prepare these institutions to quickly respond to large external shocks such as COVID-19 and will also help them in spotting new opportunities in this fast-changing and increasingly uncertain world that can contribute to their long term success.
Circling back to the symbolism of 2020, our hindsight has been insightful indeed. The industry knew that the way forward included digital pathways, yet we vacillated on utility, deployment and timelines, till we no longer had a choice. This was the year that the higher education sector finally grasped its own potential and was impelled to accelerate its evolution. This is also the year that marks the beginning of an entirely new era in Indian higher education. The world no longer exists as it did in 2019, and qualified risk audit teams will be critical to the survival and success of educational institutions that aim to create a skilled, future-ready workforce.