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How safe is your data? New report on cyber security in higher education

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Jisc have today jointly published How safe is your data? Cyber security in higher education (Policy Note 12).

The paper reveals:

  • Under penetration testing (ethical hacking), there is a 100 per cent track record of gaining access to higher education institutions’ high-value data within two hours
  • 173 higher education providers engaged with Jisc’s Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT) in 2018 (a 12 percent increase)
  • During 2018, there were more than 1,000 Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks detected at 241 different UK education and research institutions

The paper highlights areas of concern, pinpoints the sources of cyber attacks and proposes specific actions universities should take to tackle the issue, including the adoption of a new British Standard on cyber risk and resilience.

Dr John Chapman, head of Jisc’s security operations centre and the author of the report, said:

“Cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated and prevalent and universities can’t afford to stand still in the face of this constantly evolving threat.

“While the majority of higher education providers take this problem seriously, we are not confident that all UK universities are equipped with adequate cyber security knowledge, skills and investment.

“To avert a potentially disastrous data breach, or network outage, it is critical that all university leaders know what action to take to build robust defences.”

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, said:

“Universities hold masses of data on sensitive research, on the inventions of the future and on their staff and students, but some of it is not properly secured.

“The two main functions of universities are to teach and to research. Students like having their personal data used to improve teaching and learning. But this support is conditional and is unlikely to survive a really serious data breach. Meanwhile, future UK economic growth is highly dependent on university research. This provides valuable information that a few unscrupulous foreign governments are keen to access.

“Despite the challenges, cyber security is an area where we know how to make a difference, especially when there is leadership from the top. University managers and governors need to address cyber security issues, including through the new British Standard on cyber risk and resilience. Meanwhile, regulators need to consider imposing minimum cyber security and network requirements to keep students and staff safe.”

Professor David Maguire, chair of Jisc and vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, said:

“Universities are absolutely reliant on connectivity to conduct almost all their functions, from administration and finance to teaching and research. These activities accrue huge amount of data; this places a burden of responsibility on institutions, which must ensure the safety of online systems and the data held within them.

“Developing strong cyber security policies is vital not only to protect data, but also to preserve the reputation of our university sector. The HEPI / Jisc paper will help to draw higher education leaders’ attention to this important aspect of their work.”

About this policy paper

An important part of raising the issues that affect the sector and our members, is working with partners like the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). We want to make the whole sector as secure as possible and ensure the reality of the cyber threat to members is fully understood and mitigated. 

Bringing together a number of strands of information that are already in the public domain, the purpose of the paper is to draw higher education leaders’ attention to the growing cyber security threat, to help them understand the importance of robust cyber security policies and procedures, and to advise on the steps they should be taking to build strong defences.

 It also enables Jisc to convey the importance of cyber security in education, to government and parliamentarians and other external audiences, including the media.

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