Revolutionising university security

Paul Taylor, security technology expert at Allegion, takes a closer look at the major security issues on campus

Campus security – the safety and protection of universities, students and their assets – cannot be compromised. But what are the options for those who want to prioritise access control without hindering operational efficiency? How do you ensure parents and guardians have peace of mind their sons and daughters are safe in their halls of residence, while ensuring students maintain their freedom? What are the limitations with more traditional security systems and how can new developments in this area be successfully incorporated into the education environment?

So how will the latest ‘game changers’ make universities much safer, more attractive environments for all.

Mechanical lock and key is still widely seen in UK universities, but it is increasingly being seen as inadequate when compared to electronic access solutions. One of its major disadvantages is that is can prove costly in public access buildings with a high turnover of key owners. Staff and pupils may lose keys, or they may take keys with them upon leaving their employment or their university accommodation.

Consequentially, facilities management bills for replacement keys, new cylinders and the resulting administration costs can be extortionate. Not only is cost an issue, but control is also a major concern. It is very difficult, if not impossible to know every person that has lost, loaned or copied keys, so the security is often compromised. Consequently due to these costs and complexities, cylinders are often not replaced every time a key is lost. For these reasons we are seeing a move towards more sophisticated options – in both new build and refurbishment scenarios.

Smart card systems are suitable for controlling access to student accommodation and staff-only areas, as well as lecture theatres, teaching rooms, IT suites, sports halls and equipment rooms. With the ability to store data about the card user and to integrate with other systems which may already be in place at the university, students only need to carry one card to access their room, and it can also be used for other functions such as cashless vending, library book rental, attendance monitoring, canteen payment, and PC access.

Such systems can also be customised to incorporate the latest biometric technology, including finger and hand geometry readers. With increased government regulation relating to the admission of international university students, we are seeing far more interest in integrated systems capable of access control and biometric attendance monitoring.

However, with the increasing use of biometrics at all stages of education – from nurseries through to primary, secondary and higher education – their usage has stirred up some controversy. Just a few years ago a report from the British Educational Research Establishment (BERA) suggested biometrics poses a significant data security risk for schools in the UK.

The study in question, “Identity and biometrics – convenience at the cost of privacy in UK schools” warned schools must be more cautious in their handling of personal data or face consequences including identity theft, parents wrongly being sent confidential information about someone else’s child, or pupils’ biometric data being accessed by strangers.

While this study correctly identifies that biometrics are becoming an increasingly relied-upon tool in educational establishments, it fundamentally fails to understand the nature of the technology.

Biometric systems, such as hand readers, do not require any details about an individual other than their name. Details of home addresses, bank account numbers, or other personal information are not stored in any file or database. The measurements taken of an individual’s hand are simply converted through a unique algorithm into a number, which is what is stored in the database. In fact, even if someone picked up the PC that the software is stored upon and walked off with it, it would offer up no personal information whatsoever.

It must also be remembered that educational establishments will only be using biometrics once individuals have pre-registered within schools and universities. The biometric profile is then used merely to confirm the individual is who they say they are and that they genuinely require access to a location or service.

The question to ask is why more and more schools and universities are looking to introduce biometrics for registration, cashless payments, and library cards? The answer is convenience – not just for the school or university, but also for students. Biometrics cannot be lost, forgotten or stolen, which means a student is always able to access services, unlike an ID card which is just another thing to leave at home, in their room, or on the bus.

Additionally an ID card, which could easily be lost or stolen, is likely to contain a student’s name and photograph, but the data from a hand or fingerprint scan, even if it got into the wrong hands, will simply contain a meaningless number. I know which I would rather my child use. Yet parents are far more accepting of the use of ID cards/library cards – probably due to their widespread use and familiarity.

I have no doubt issues around data protection pose a constant challenge for many universities – with regards to personal information, addresses, and other confidential information from social services, for example. However, my message is that biometrics is not the problem. In fact, in security and audit terms, it is often the answer.

So what next for access control and university security? The biggest game changer on the horizon is Near Field Communication (NFC). Quite simply, NFC could enable students in halls of residence or other university accommodation to receive their room key electronically to their smartphone.

The benefits of NFC are clear. Security is increased as most smartphone owners use a passcode on their phone, so even if they lose it, no-one can just pick it up and just start using it. At the moment, if a student was to lose a room key or even a contactless security card, this could be used by someone else to access the room until it is reported lost – which might be too late.

In addition a massive proportion of smartphone owners keep their phones on them at all times, so the risk of leaving their room without the means to get back in is also reduced.

However, there are two major barriers to the wider implementation of this new technology.

In the first instance, its advancement is being slowed down as there are still a significant proportion of people who do not actually own a smartphone. Additionally, not all smartphones are currently NFC enabled, so the system will not fulfil its revolutionary potential until more phones arrive with the technology to support it.

My advice to universities is to speak directly to manufacturers to best understand how the latest technology can be tailored to fit their every need. Old traditional lock and key systems have their place, but for busy universities with high staff and pupil numbers, they are outdated and inefficient – and can therefore prove costly over time.

Risk can be massively reduced through preventative measures; and continued investment in access security not only saves time, inconvenience and much-needed funds, it can also make the school far more attractive, comfortable – and of course safer – for staff and pupils alike.

To find out more about Allegion’s range of access control solutions, please visit or call 01922 707400.





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