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June 9, 2020


State of Physical Access Trend Report 2024

How security teams are leading the fightback at universities

In a time of historic challenges for the higher education sector, leading security managers are showing the way forward. Glenn Farrant, co-founder and CEO of CriticalArc, explains.

GlennFarrant-CriticalArc-20Universities are now fighting for their futures.

For most, the new academic year would be normally starting in about three months. But this year is far from normal and a huge cloud of uncertainty is hanging over the whole higher education sector. Some institutions may face insolvency, and many will have to make far-reaching changes in order to survive.

In some notable cases security managers will play a key role in what happens next.

Mounting financial challenges

Most universities rely on a healthy student intake every year to remain financially viable, and they especially need enough higher fee-paying international students.

The big question facing the sector now is how many students will sign up for courses in 2020/21. The answer may depend, in part, on whether anything like a value-for-money student experience can be delivered in this year of disruption.

Tuition is expensive and students see their debts growing with each year of study, so it’s only right that universities should have to compete at delivering a good ‘service’ in return.

That service can be measured in lots of ways, including the quality of the lectures provided, contact time with tutors, employment prospects for graduates, safety and security, and the standard of accommodation and campus facilities.

While much can be done online (Cambridge University has had the confidence to confirm that all lectures for the whole of next year will be delivered remotely) in most cases that may not be good enough.

One of the most important things that undergraduates expect – a big part of what they are paying for – is the life-changing experience of campus living: the opportunity to spend three or more years away from home for the first time, to meet and live with people from different backgrounds and cultures with different world views, who are studying a huge variety of different subjects.

Major economic contribution – and leap of faith

And, if the full campus experience cannot be offered, will prospective students just stay away? This is what executive boards in the sector are now wrestling with – they are making plans for opening in the autumn and taking, what one security manager told me feels like, ‘a leap of faith’.


Even if air travel becomes easier, the fear remains that international students will be put off by safety concerns, including students from China who make up a high proportion of intake for many institutions. In the UK, for example, China is by far the biggest nation of origin for international students according to the British Council. In 2018/19 there were more than 120,000 Chinese students at UK universities compared with the next highest: 26,000-plus from India and 20,000-plus from the US.

Many IFSEC Global readers will have a direct personal interest in this – including children who are attending or are about to attend university, and acquaintances who are employed by the sector, directly or indirectly. And, it’s worth remembering the major economic benefits that higher education brings to the national economy, playing an important role in many cities and regions around the country. UK universities generate £95 billion for the country’s economy and support more than 940,000 jobs across the nation, according to a 2017 analysis from Universities UK.

Special interest for security professionals

There’s another special area of interest for security managers too: some unique lessons to be learned from the work that university teams have been doing recently, which we’ve been involved in and have written about, and the impressive way that some have responded to the challenges of the pandemic so far.

Campus heads of security have been extending the scope of their services, improving efficiency and capabilities, working more closely with other departments, and aligning themselves with their institutions’ wider strategic objectives.

And this may be about to pay dividends as the effort to attract students enters its most critical phase.

Service changes driven by security leadership

Service changes introduced over the last two or three years – by some notable leaders in the security field – include improved training and skills for officers, deployment of new command and control technologies, and more focus on community safety and wellbeing in the broadest sense.

Some security teams (famously at the award-winning Heriot-Watt University) have been rebranded as ‘safeguarding’ teams to reflect this wider role. An important result of this has been a closer alignment of security with the strategic policy development in the higher education sector, and greater recognition of the role security can play.

These improvements in capability, scope of service and board level influence may now make a vital difference when it comes to re-opening campuses and allowing them to operate, if not quite as before, then at least in a viable ‘new normal’ way that students will feel still gives them good value.

Everything may hinge on how efficiently, and how safely, campuses can be brought back to life, and – as a result – how much students can enjoy living and studying on them.

The aim should be as much as possible – and as fast as possible – to re-introduce the full campus experience. And much of this comes down to perceptions of safety.

Star performers

CriticalArc-SafezoneUniversity-20One of the star performers is undoubtedly Teesside University, which this year was ranked top in the UK for overall average student satisfaction in the International Student Barometer global survey. On the question of safety, Teesside has climbed from 70th percentile to the top 10, despite being located in a relatively high crime area.

Part of the improvement in student satisfaction is tied to improved engagement between students and campus security.

Like security teams at more than a third of UK universities, Teesside officers now use CriticalArc’s SafeZone technology as one of their key tools, with full support from the executive board, and the status of the security department has risen as a result of its deployment.

“We are committed to keeping our staff, students and visitors safe, and what we wanted to do was have something tangible that would empower our people to keep themselves safe,” says Head of Security, Claire Humble.

READ: Interview with Claire Humble, Transforming Security at Teeside University

It’s a similar picture at Aston University where the security team has been able to maintain safe campus operations under pandemic conditions over this last term. They’ve been able to provide improved communications, emergency response, and monitoring of wellbeing for people who’ve been in greater isolation both at work in laboratories and libraries, and in residential accommodation (mostly international students).

And, as Alison Levy, Director of Student and Academic Services at Aston University describes, this approach also allows universities to respond to student concerns more quickly, and to operate their campuses as welcoming and safe learning environments.

“The real added value for us is that now we have students who can easily report hate crime, if they’ve been bullied, if they’ve seen something that’s made them uncomfortable. In a supportive way we can collect data on it, so we’ve got a better idea of what’s happening on campus.”

From Swansea, to Newcastle, to Leicester, to Heriot-Watt University – and at dozens of others in the UK and globally – security teams have been innovating, improving safety provision and focusing on student and staff wellbeing.

They were doing this before the pandemic struck, and making a material difference in attracting students – and reassuring parents – from around the world.

In this year of uncertainty, their new capabilities may make the biggest difference of all.

Find out more about how CriticalArc’s Safezone is supporting universities in enhancing student security and safety. 

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