More than half of UK universities have reported a data breach to the ICO in the last year, while 46% of all university staff received no security training and almost a quarter of institutions (24%) did not commission a penetration test from a third party.
Research from Redscan on the state of cyber security in the higher education sector, based on an analysis of Freedom of Information requests, found that defending against an incessant stream of phishing attacks remains a challenge of all universities.
Several institutions reported receiving millions of spam/phishing emails each year, with one reporting a high of 130 million. Phishing attempts were described as being “endless” and one university disclosed that attacks had increased by 50% since 2019.
According to the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), universities are targeted by criminals seeking financial gain, as well as by nation state attackers looking to steal intellectual property.
The Redscan report underscores the degree to which universities are an attractive target. It also raises concerns that many may not be doing enough to defend against the latest threats, particularly at a time when institutions are embracing remote teaching en masse and conducting world-changing research in relation to COVID-19.
Other key findings from the report include:
- 54% of universities reported a data breach to the ICO in the last 12 months
- A quarter of universities haven’t commissioned a pen test from an external provider in the last year
- 46% of all university staff in the UK received no security training in the last year. One top Russell Group university has trained only 12% of its staff
- Universities spend an average of £7,529 per year on security training, with expenditure ranging from £0 to £49,000
- Universities employ, on average, three qualified cyber security professionals
- 51% of universities are proactive in providing security training and information to students
- 12% of universities do not offer any kind of security guidance, support or training at all to students
- 66 out of 134 universities have Cyber Essentials or Cyber Essential Plus certification
Redscan CTO, Mark Nicholls, said: “UK universities are among the most well-respected learning and research centres globally, yet our analysis highlights inconsistencies in the approach institutions are taking to protect their staff, students and intellectual property against the latest cyber threats.
“The fact that such a large number of universities don’t deliver cyber security training to staff and students, nor commission independent penetration testing, is concerning. These are foundational elements of every security program and key to helping prevent data breaches.
“Even at this time of intense budgetary pressure, institutions need to ensure that their cyber security teams receive the support they need to defend against sophisticated adversaries. Breaches have the potential to seriously impact organisations’ reputation and funding.”
“The threat posed to universities by nation state attackers makes the need for improvements even more critical. The cost of failing to protect scientific research is immeasurable.”