Home Features Protecting the Higher Education Sector: A Lecture on University Security

Protecting the Higher Education Sector: A Lecture on University Security

by Brian Sims

Forty years ago, DEC (latterly acquired by Compaq) said there was no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home. Thirty years ago, the Internet was invented and, ten years ago, we had only just discovered smart phones and social networking. The world of technology and communication is changing exponentially. University campuses are bearing witness to this change and, as a direct result, security is becoming ever more valuable. Here, Alistair Enser examines current thinking on security provision in the higher education space.

More than 50% of young people now go to university and, as a consequence, higher education establishments have to compete more and more in order to attract the most talented young people. Now, universities are using security and access control technology to not only make their campuses safer, but also more intelligent.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 2017-2018 there were 2.34 million students studying at UK higher education institutions. Figures for the same period showed that the total income for the sector was £38.2 billion, which was made up from funding body grants, research grants and contracts, investment income, donations and endowments. However, contributing £18.9 billion were tuition fees and education contracts, with each student paying up to £9,250 per year for their education. This has increased since 2012 when the limit on fees was increased and, subsequently, 2013 when the cap on student numbers was removed.

In short, university has now become a commercial enterprise, not just an education establishment.

Money matters

Studying for a degree is clearly an expensive business these days. On top of tuition fees, there’s also the repayment of any maintenance loans to consider. When added to tuition fee debt, this can total between £35,000 and £40,000 over a typical three-year course with an annual interest rate of 5.4%. This level of financial investment has radically altered the dynamic of higher education, with students now far more determined to eke out the very best value for their money, not just in terms of quality of learning, but also in the environments in which they study and live.

Given this level of investment, universities are arguably better funded than ever before and competing with gusto for students’ cash. Students are seen as ‘customers’ as well as academics and universities must do all they can to attract the very best talent from both the UK and overseas.

Although university is an exciting experience, it can at times be stressful and a source of anxiety in relation to studies, relationship issues, harassment, financial difficulties or becoming a victim of crime. That being so, students need support to help them deal with these issues, ensure they gain maximum benefit from their university education and experience and reduce the risk of failure or drop out. This has led to a significant increase in the amount of technology being integrated into campuses to enhance the student experience and offer the best possible levels of safety, security and well-being.

Taking the initiative

There are various initiatives designed to achieve this status quo. Perhaps the most prominent is ProtectED, which claims to be the ‘Gold Standard’ in this area. In many respects, ProtectED highlights the change in focus within higher education-based security, which has traditionally centred on protecting campus facilities, ensuring the safety of the institutional estate and preventing and detecting crime. With a greater emphasis on the wider student experience, university security personnel are now increasingly attending to issues related to safeguarding and student well-being.

To highlight this, ProtectED conducted some research and found that attending to welfare issues was the second most common issue dealt with by university security officers (the first being anti-social behaviour and the third drug-related activity). This clearly reflects the diverse role played by university security staff and, as such, a Code of Practice has been developed. Entitled ‘Core Institutional Safety and Security’, this addresses specific areas of student safety and well-being and is supported by bodies such as the Association of University Chief Security Officers, the Security Industry Authority and the International Professional Security Association.

Keeping in touch

The perceived safety of a university is a significant factor for prospective students, their parents and loved ones when it comes to choosing where to study. Therefore, ensuring the security and well-being of students requires a joined-up approach and, in this regard, technology is increasingly able to assist.

Universities often have complex security and access management challenges. There’s now a move away from having disparate systems. More often than not, campuses are spreading out and are now more like miniature smart cities.  They need to remain inviting and as open as possible, but they still have physical and cyber security needs.

As technology progresses it’s fair to say that we all expect seamless integration. Our lives are increasingly benefiting from having access to multiple data sources, social media and technology which provide us with valuable information upon which we make decisions. Modern day security systems can and should become an embedded part of this ecosystem.

Taking a more holistic approach, looking at the entire Internet of Things (IoT) across a given campus allows valuable data and information to be used for better cause-and-effect decisions, as well as providing valuable insights beyond security, such as information on footfall patterns, building usage and attendance, in turn highlighting higher risk areas for lone students, etc.

Creating an intelligent environment

Although implementing a state-of-the-art surveillance and access control system is often driven by security concerns and risk versus cost calculations, employing the information that it gathers through its ability to use the IoT is where the real commercial value comes in.

Put simply, a smart security system integrated with other business processes can most certainly assist in the creation of an intelligent environment. This can be hugely ‘profitable’ for a business or university, rather than just a cost, and especially so if it can provide cost savings in areas such as energy management, attendance reports, usage patterns and other business critical processes.

Since the number of cameras and security sensors deployed throughout a university campus can be significant, there is undoubtedly an opportunity to consider analytics software. Analytics can look at footfall behaviour to help search for (or even predict) suspicious activity. It can be used to contrast and compare different reference points. For example, a student should not be actively logged into the Wi-Fi in their Hall of Residence while simultaneously attending a lecture theatre. Cyber bullying, changes in patterns of attendance, managing excess crowds and traffic flow and mass notification are all areas which, one way or another, could be linked to the overall security system.

Smart thinking

The use of smart phone apps is ubiquitous within the student community, so employng them to enhance safety and integrating them within an overall security infrastructure makes complete sense. Imagine a student app which helps to communicate security information and updates that keep students safe, while offering a way for them to notify a university’s security team if they feel threatened or vulnerable. Having location services enabled/disabled on a smart phone could permit messages specific to, or about, a location to be sent and shared, while at the same time allowing the student to retain privacy when they choose.

An app can even allow a smart phone to be used as a form of access card or camera to move around a campus, saving the university money through not having to issue cards that could be easily lost or stolen and subsequently replaced. Just as importantly, any information collected (with the student’s consent, of course) could identify how the campus is used by employing heat mapping-style analytics to track student behavioural patterns.

In light of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it’s vital to make sure that any technology is secure from cyber attacks and that any data is collected in an ethical and consensual fashion. Students must understand how this data will be used and how they may benefit from that use.

Depending on the use case and the student involved, it may not be necessary to collect or share detailed personal data. However, the reality is that the more the app understands about the user, the more filtered and better targeted information can be shared. It could be as simple as a phone number and faculty so, if a university needs to contact a student in an emergency scenario, it can send a text, voice/picture message or an app notification.

Space is the place

Although the protection of people, property and assets is the primary reason for installing a security and access control system, this innovative technology also has the ability to help universities save money, maximise resources and meet their sustainability-based goals.

Let’s take a look for a moment at the subject of space usage. A large number of universities are growing and, therefore, space within university campuses is at a premium. One solution is just to ‘build more’ rather than using rooms, lecture halls and offices in the most effective ways possible. However, modern day approaches to manage effective space use can minimise costs by achieving more efficient use of a university’s estate. Not only can such an approach provide measurable benefits financially and allow funds to be used elsewhere, but it can also enhance the day-to-day experience for students and staff alike.

Alistair Enser

Alistair Enser

Combining, for example, access control, cyber, CCTV and smart phone apps, a university could create an environment where management can seamlessly communicate backwards and forwards with all users, managing and predicting the flow of people, the use of space, demands on energy and unusual behaviours as well as identify security risks prior to a problem occurring.

As highlighted earlier, the key challenge is really around consent, ethics, privacy and data compliance. The technology exists, though.

The integration of security and access control technology into the student experience is only set to accelerate further thanks to the rapid adoption of the IoT. According to Cisco, 500 billion devices are expected to be connected to the Internet by 2030. There’s massive scope for universities to create smart campuses that positively impact how facilities are used, can increase the energy efficiency of buildings and common spaces and also enrich the learning experience for students by keeping them safe, secure and happy while they learn.

Alistair Enser is CEO at Reliance High-Tech

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