Back to school, back to risks: cybersecurity challenges in education

Back to school, back to risks web 1400x800 (1)

In our technology-driven era, cybersecurity has become essential in every industry, particularly education. A rising margin of digital threats on both public and private institutions indicates a challenge to tackle these risks. This article will explore why the education sector appeals to malicious actors and discuss how to safeguard students and schools against these threats.

Education providers: a constant target on cyber criminals' radar

A year ago, we discussed the circumstances of the education sector and cybersecurity, why it’s so vulnerable, and what actual threats it brings to the safety of the parties involved. 

Systematic challenges like limited budgets, cybersecurity knowledge shortage, and outdated legacy infrastructures hold lower and higher education schools hostage to overcoming exposure to risks.

The most recent data reveals that malicious actors’ interest in the education sector is growing, not decreasing. Let’s take a look at some of the latest statistics.

A continuously growing threat

According to the World Economic Forum, the rise in cyber attacks targeting schools and universities has seen a staggering 300% increase in the past year alone.

Recent reports reveal that 1 in 3 educational institutions have experienced some form of cyberattack in the last two years. In comparison, other sectors have seen less growth in cybercrime, emphasizing the severity of this issue in education.

Looking at cyberattacks on universities around the world that happened only in the first half of 2023, number of known cases reached 267, according to the Kon Briefing data.

Malware and phishing attacks remain the most prominent types of attacks in lower and higher education sectors, according to Government Technology.

According to Statista, the education sector ranks fifth globally in terms of the number of cybercrime incidents (418) in 2021-2022, right after the healthcare (479) and finance (1,729) sectors.

The impact on education

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

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 higher 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 cyberattacks

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 classrooms and online learning platforms has broadened the scope for potential attacks. Often, educational institutions 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 pupils information, an extremely vulnerable group in society.

Limited resources for cybersecurity

Budget constraints often result in weaker cybersecurity measures in educational institutions. Limited investment in secure technologies leaves schools and universities more susceptible to attacks.

Back to school, back to risks 1400x642 1

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 cyberattacks 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 cyberattacks 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 sector compared to other industries. Lower education providers saw 80% of them being hit by ransomware, and higher education providers saw 79%.

Back to school, back to risks 1400x908 2

This is a significant increase from the previous year's survey in 2022, where 56% of lower education and 64% of higher 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.

Back to school, back to risks 1400x495 3

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.

Back to school, back to risks 1400x622 4

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 attack types in the educational system — the exposure to the threat grows exponentially:


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.

What is Multi-Cloud Security 3 1400x495

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.

Expert tips on staying safe

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 connecting individuals 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 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.

Share article


Copy failed

Protect your business with cybersecurity news that matters

Join our expert community and get tips, news, and special offers delivered to you monthly.

Free advice. No spam. No commitment.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.