Cybersecurity in education: back to school, back to risks

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In our technology-driven world, cybersecurity is critical, and its importance extends across all industries, especially in the education sector. With digital tools and online resources becoming integral to learning, the number of cyber threats has risen significantly.

Recent studies reveal a concerning trend: cybercriminals are targeting educational institutions due to the valuable and sensitive data they hold. A report by IBM underscores this trend, showing that the knowledge industry experiences a higher-than-average number of cyber-attacks.

Infosecurity Magazine further highlights this vulnerability, noting that in 2023, 29% of attacks on educational institutions exploited vulnerabilities, and 30% involved phishing campaigns targeting K-12 schools. The impact of these attacks is profound.

Ransomware incidents in K-12 and higher education institutions globally have resulted in staggering costs. From 2018 to mid-September 2023, cyber incidents breached over 6.7 million personal records, causing downtime costs of over $53 billion. In the US alone, 386 ransomware incidents led to an estimated $35.1 billion in downtime costs.

This article delves into the evolving threats facing the knowledge sector, offering insights on safeguarding student and staff data and creating resilient learning environments. We'll explore the unique challenges and vulnerabilities within K-12 and higher education, providing practical strategies to enhance cybersecurity measures and protect our future generations.

Key takeaways:

  • The education sector is a growing target for cybercriminals due to valuable data, limited budgets, and outdated security systems.

  • Cyber-attacks on schools and universities have increased significantly, with a 300% rise in the past year alone.

  • Malware and phishing remain the most common attack types, impacting a large number of institutions.

  • Cyber-attacks' impact includes data loss, financial costs, and threats to minors' safety, disrupting the educational process.

  • Budget constraints often lead to weaker cybersecurity measures, making schools and universities more vulnerable.

  • Proactive measures, staff training, and comprehensive security solutions are vital to enhancing protection in the education sector.

Critical cybersecurity's role in education

Cybersecurity is crucial in the education sector, from K-12 to higher ed. With student data and online learning at stake, here's why cybersecurity matters:

  • Data security: Cybersecurity protects sensitive data—from student records to personal info—from unauthorized access, ensuring privacy.

  • Safe learning: With students online, cybersecurity safeguards against cyberbullying and inappropriate content, creating a positive digital environment.

  • Network defense: Cybersecurity in schools protects large networks from external threats, preventing data breaches and maintaining IT infrastructure integrity.

  • Reputation management: A cyber attack impacts a school's public image—cybersecurity helps maintain a trusted and respected institution.

  • Compliance & regulations: Educational institutions must comply with privacy laws, therefore, cybersecurity ensures schools meet standards, reducing legal risks.

By embracing cybersecurity in education now, schools protect student privacy, foster safe learning, and maintain their reputation.

Education providers: a constant target on cyber criminals' radar

The academic community faces a disproportionate level of cyber threats due to a combination of factors. Limited budgets, constrained cybersecurity resources, outdated infrastructure, and the rapid shift to online learning during the pandemic have collectively increased schools' vulnerability.

This heightened vulnerability underscores the criticality of implementing robust cybersecurity measures and ensuring the protection of sensitive data within the education sector. With the right tools, training, and strategies, schools can bolster their defenses and create a safer digital environment for students and teachers.

The attacks on education can have devastating effects, ranging from the loss of critical research data to substantial financial costs and threats to student privacy and the security of minors. Moreover, disrupting educational processes can damage reputations and hinder the learning and development of students.

The UK government conducted a survey about cybersecurity breaches in education institutions in 2023. This is what they found:

  • Compared to the average UK business, education institutions of all kinds have been more likely to detect cybersecurity breaches or attacks in the past year.

  • Further and tertiary education institutions are more prone to cyber breaches and attacks than schools. They are also susceptible to a more diverse array of attack types, including impersonation, viruses or other malware, and denial of service attacks.

  • Among higher education institutions that detected any breaches or attacks, six out of ten reported losing money or data or found that compromised accounts were used for unauthorized purposes. In contrast, only 22% of primary schools, 24% of secondary schools, and 36% of colleges face similar outcomes.

  • The most common (45%) negative outcome among all educational institutions is compromised accounts or systems that were used for illicit purposes.

  • 75% of higher education institutions were negatively affected by breaches or attacks, often leading to extra staff time to handle the situation (70%) or the need for new protective measures (48%).

  • Primary (37%) and secondary schools (49%) were less affected, aligning more closely with typical businesses (37%), while higher education institutions were closer to large businesses (52% faced negative outcomes).

What makes the educational sector appealing for cyber-attacks

Outdated security systems, rich troves of personal information, research data, and financial records present a lucrative target for cybercriminals. 

Additionally, limited budgets in education often lead to less investment in robust cybersecurity measures. These factors collectively make schools and universities a tempting target for various forms of cyber exploitation.

Technology integration in learning

Incorporating technology into K-12, college, or university classrooms and online learning platforms has broadened the scope for potential attacks. Often, academic establishments operate with outdated or poorly maintained systems, making them explicitly vulnerable.

Lacking security applications doesn’t sufficiently protect devices from online threats when browsing. Weak protective measures leave educational systems in the open for DDoS attacks or malicious software injections.

The value of data

Personal information, financial records, and research data hold significant value for cybercriminals. Intellectual property and identity theft can be worth a lifetime's work or inflict financial damage if stolen and sold. 

A breach could compromise sensitive data like exam results and student personal details that, in some countries, are classified as private information, leading to legal consequences if used improperly. Moreover, schools often deal with underage students information, an extremely vulnerable group in society.

Limited resources for cybersecurity

Budget constraints often result in weaker cybersecurity measures in learning institutions. Limited investment in secure technologies leaves schools and universities more susceptible to common cyber incidents.

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Research shows that approximately 20% of higher education institutions have cybersecurity strategies in place, while seven out of ten large businesses have security measures ready.

The most common types of cyber-attacks in the education sector

Schools, colleges, and universities face an ever-expanding range of digital threats that can severely impact their operations. In this section, we'll explore different types of cyber-attacks in education. 

These examples not only highlight the vulnerabilities present in educational institutions but also shed light on the evolving tactics of cybercriminals.

Ransomware & malware attacks

Ransomware, malicious software that encrypts files and demands payment for their release, has hit schools hard. Prominent universities often pay hundreds of thousands to regain access to their system.

In the 2023 survey, ransomware attacks were most common in the education field compared to other industries. Lower education providers saw 80% of them being hit by ransomware, and higher education providers saw 79%. 

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This is a significant increase from the previous year's survey in 2022, where 56% of lower education and 64% of tertiary education providers reported malware attacks. These numbers have doubled since 2021.

DDoS attacks

DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks overwhelm systems with traffic, causing them to crash. Several schools have faced disruptions during critical testing periods due to these attacks.

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Despite affecting all types of educational institutions to some level, further education colleges (44%) and higher education institutions (30%) are more susceptible to DDoS attacks

Insider threats

Insider threats, often caused by disgruntled employees or students, can be equally harmful. A common case involves a student hacking into a school's grading system to alter grades. However, greater risks exist in impersonating internal employees or student parents.

According to the UK study on educational institutions and cyber threats, the category of others impersonating organizations in emails or online is one of  the most common cyber incidents in the educational system—the exposure to the threat grows exponentially:

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Phishing scams, where attackers impersonate trusted entities to obtain personal information, have successfully deceived many educational staff members. Universities have lost a lot of money to such scams, as this type of threat remains the top choice for malicious actors.

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Interestingly, 100% of the analyzed higher education institutions have suffered phishing attacks. Colleges are not far behind, with a 92% exposure rate to phishing attacks. The attack scope for primary (84%) and secondary (86%) schools is lower than higher education yet stays high.

Enhancing cybersecurity in education: strategies for success

To address the cybersecurity challenges faced by the educational community, institutions can implement the following strategies:

  • Establish a cybersecurity framework by following guidelines such as ISO 27001 for building an Information Security Management System (ISMS) that helps prevent external attacks and define internal security policies

  • Conduct regular risk assessments to identify vulnerabilities and develop mitigation plans accordingly

  • Implement robust access controls and multi-factor authentication for all users, including students, teachers, and staff (a remote access solution like NordLayer can provide secure remote access to educational resources while adhering to data protection regulations)

  • Prioritize security awareness by training all members of the community on identifying and responding to prevalent threats like phishing, malware, and social engineering attacks

  • Regularly update and patch software & systems to address known vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers

  • Collaborate with specialized IT security firms to gain access to enterprise-grade tools and expertise that smaller institutions with limited resources don't have in-house

  • Conduct external audits to identify gaps in infrastructure and implement layered defenses to proactively manage the growing range of cyber risks

By implementing these strategies, learning institutions can enhance their cybersecurity posture, protect sensitive data, and ensure a secure learning environment for students and faculty.

Expert tips on education security

Understanding the risks and taking proactive measures can significantly improve protection against cyber threats. Whether the organization will implement robust security measures or educate individuals about potential risks, a coordinated approach provides a roadmap to a more secure educational environment.

Protecting the institution

Good practices recommend regular updates, staff training, and investments in cybersecurity infrastructure. Conducting periodic risk assessments can also be vital in staying ahead of potential threats.

Safety tips for individuals

Students, teachers, and staff must be vigilant. Following best practices like using strong, unique passwords, identifying phishing emails, and keeping software up to date can make a significant difference.

Use of extensive and effective solutions

Network access security solutions like NordLayer provide broad coverage for mitigating cybersecurity risks the education sector faces daily:

  • Encrypted traffic secures sensitive data from exposure to third parties. 

  • Network segmentation by teams or organization members ensures that internal content and resources are accessed by the right users.

  • Always On VPN and Auto-connect help secure protected-only connections even connected to public networks.

  • Identity access management reassures the network administrator that individuals who are connecting belong to the organization

  • Browser extension provides a lightweight solution to browse securely on the browser level.

  • DNS filtering by category limits access to malicious resources, while Deep Packet Inspection allows blocking certain protocols and ports from use while connected to the organization’s network.


The education sector's appeal to cybercriminals makes understanding and addressing cybersecurity threats essential. Schools, universities, staff, and students must proactively protect against cyber threats. 

A collaborative effort to strengthen cybersecurity measures will ensure that education remains a safe space for learning and innovation rather than becoming a playground for cybercriminals.

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