Home | Opinion | Why providing a secure student experience could be make or break for Australia’s tertiary education institutions in 2021: opinion

Why providing a secure student experience could be make or break for Australia’s tertiary education institutions in 2021: opinion

Pre-pandemic, higher education was Australia’s third-largest export category, responsible for contributing $37.6 billion to the economy in the 2019 financial year, according to Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan.

What a difference a year makes.

The higher education sector has been one of those hardest hit by the ongoing COVID crisis. Since the virus forced the government to shut the borders in early 2020, tens of thousands of international students have been locked out of the country and institutions have been forced to cut costs – and thousands of jobs – to compensate for the unexpected drop in revenue.

Modelling published by Universities Australia in mid-2020 revealed the sector stood to lose as much as $16 billion in revenue between now and 2023.

And this extraordinary shortfall isn’t the only challenge the pandemic has created for the sector. Institutions have had to abandon their traditional service delivery model – in-person lectures and tutorials – and implement large scale online learning and assessment solutions on the fly.

The latter exercise has not been without its hurdles and hiccups, not least of which has been widespread student concern about data security and privacy being compromised by online exam monitoring services.

Building smarter, more accessible and safer digital campuses has become a pressing imperative for institutions which hope to maintain a high level of student satisfaction, and correspondingly healthy enrolment numbers, over the long haul.

The attack on institutions

Stringent cyber-security will be an integral part of that equation. Education providers are the custodians of a wealth of data, including sensitive intellectual property and the personal details of tens of thousands of students and staff members. As such, they’re prime targets for hackers and cyber-criminals.

Some have already fallen victim. In late 2019, it was revealed that a sophisticated team of hackers had succeeded in accessing the personal data of some 200,000 students and staff at the Australian National University over a period of 19 years. The Australian Cyber Security Centre, which has warned of the danger of countries attempting to steal IP from tertiary institutions and research centres, was forced to step in to help with the clean-up.

More recently, news broke of a massive data breach affecting more than 400,000 users of the online exam monitoring tool, ProctorU. Many were students at prestigious Australian institutions.

For students, the prospect of their details – address, phone numbers, email, student ID and other forms of identity – falling into the wrong hands is distressing and disquieting. Given the rise in identity and credential theft, how and where they might be used is anyone’s guess.

Securing student data

Given increasing awareness and concern about cyber-crime, institutions which aren’t seen to be taking all reasonable steps to prevent their systems being compromised or hacked can expect to take a serious reputational hit, if the worst occurs.

A significant data breach could also see education providers run afoul of Australia’s privacy watchdog, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which has the power to impose significant penalties on organisations that breach the Australian Privacy Principles.

Multi-factor authentication can help institutions protect the personal data of students and staff, irrespective of when and where they log on. A simple, easy-to-use service with convenient authentication factors, such as mobile tokens, and a single sign-on capability can be deployed to protect the cloud applications, email accounts and video conferencing platforms institutions use to deliver the learning experience.

Time to act

The COVID crisis has accelerated the Australian higher education sector’s already well advanced digital transformation journey and amplified the risk to core systems and data. Securing the student experience is an imperative for institutions that want to minimise their chance of experiencing a dangerous or damaging data breach in today’s challenging times.

Mark Sinclair is ANZ regional director at WatchGuard Technologies.

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