28 Sep 2021

Combatting the growing number of cyberattacks against the higher education sector

Guest Blog: Enzo Brienza, sales manager, InterSystems discusses the threat of attacks in the higher education sector on day two of techUK's Data Analytics Week #DataWeek

Cyberattacks against the higher education sector are continuing to grow in prevalence, with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) issuing several alerts highlighting an increase in ransomware attacks against schools, colleges, and universities in the UK this year.  

So far this year, institutions including the University of Northampton and the University of Hertfordshire have experienced attacks, with the latter having to cancel online classes for two days due to the attack taking down all of its IT systems.  

As the new academic year gets underway and the threat of attacks in the higher education sector continues to loom large, cybersecurity should be a key focus for institutions. Advances in technology lend themselves to taking some of the pain out of cybersecurity initiatives, helping to automate processes, detect threats before they occur, and allow institutions to respond quicker.  

Enhancing threat detection with AI and ML 

Deploying solutions that embed technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will prove highly beneficial. These technologies can be trained on behavioural data and analyse this data to establish normal patterns and deviations from the norm. This will help to better detect changes that could be indicative of breaches or threats to enable institutions to take the relevant action.   

When it comes to cyberattacks, speed is of the essence. Therefore, the use of AI and ML in this way will help to increase efficiency and allow institutions to respond to threats more quickly.  

Prevention is better than a cure 

AI and ML can also help prevent breaches from happening altogether and combat the next generation of cyberattacks. Using behavioural data, algorithms can be used to accurately predict where breaches may occur and alert individuals to them, allowing them to take action before an incident can occur.  

It will also help organisations to identify where vulnerabilities lie to enable them to take preventative measures and secure their IT infrastructure.  

Facing up to security issues  

Higher education institutions could also increase security with the adoption of biometric authentication solutions. Using AI and ML, such tools can use facial recognition to identify individuals based on their characteristics.  

Their use will ensure that only the intended user can access certain applications or even physical locations, such as labs or halls of residence, for example, to better protect sensitive information and data. 

Using analytics to protect data 

On a daily basis, higher education institutions process large volumes of sensitive records and information. If this data were to get into the wrong hands, it could be disastrous for the organisation, resulting in significant fines and loss of reputation, and could put their students and employees at risk.  

The use of data platforms that include analytics capabilities can help institutions to detect, analyse and mitigate threats. They also enable organisations to audit and test how data is being used within the organisation, which while not government mandated, will help to tighten up their data-related cybersecurity processes and ensure they know who has access to what data.  

By using AI, ML, and analytics in these ways, higher education institutions can ensure that they are better able to mitigate, respond to, and even prevent the rising tide of cyberattacks being levied at the sector.  



Enzo Brienza, sales manager, InterSystems




Katherine Holden

Katherine Holden

Head of Data Analytics, AI and Digital ID, techUK

Katherine joined techUK in May 2018 and currently leads the Data Analytics, AI and Digital ID programme. 

Prior to techUK, Katherine worked as a Policy Advisor at the Government Digital Service (GDS) supporting the digital transformation of UK Government.

Whilst working at the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) Katherine led AMRC’s policy work on patient data, consent and opt-out.    

Katherine has a BSc degree in Biology from the University of Nottingham.

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