When a new academic year gets under way, it's not just students who worry about finance: universities are also bracing themselves for storms ahead. But it's possible to get protection in a critical area.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has sent a chill through the higher education (HE) sector, with its experts warning that universities are arguably going through one of their most turbulent periods for a generation .
The Higher Education Sector Risk Profile 2018 says funding uncertainty, scrutiny over the cost of a degree, making sure students get a good deal, and vice-chancellor pay will be among the top issues consuming the sector. And that's before you even factor in the impact of Brexit.
What's more, the sector is grappling with a cultural shift as students demand to be treated as consumers, with all the perceived power and expectations that brings. "Arguably, the higher education sector is riskier now than it has ever been," warn PwC's risk specialists.
Sector confidence is waning too, with almost two thirds of universities feeling less optimistic than 12 months ago about their financial prospects, according to research commissioned by The Guardian and HSBC . So, where are the pain points?
Top-five risks for universities
PwC has also been looking at the biggest threats facing higher education. This year, issues such as research quality, organisational change and transformation programmes have slipped down the agenda. But finance-related matters dominate.
According to PwC, the top-five areas posing the greatest risks to universities in 2018 are:
- Government policy/political landscape
- Student recruitment
- Information security/cyber attacks
Even if these risks are driven by factors beyond their control, universities are having to respond effectively.
IT security threats
Universities must always balance much-cherished student freedom with robust information security. However, PwC's experts see the "ever-increasing and complex threat of cyber attacks" as a matter of concern, with criminals targeting areas such as sensitive data belonging to students and staff.
And with the recent introduction of GDPR, universities and colleges know that large financial penalties will be the consequence if they don’t prioritise their data management.
Employees at individual universities opened up about a host of worries in the IT/cyber security realm. These included:
- Systems being compromised or failing to deliver services
- Cyber security measures not providing adequate protection
- Failures for a university to operate because of severe business disruption
What students care about most
Students have their priorities, too. When PwC talked to them, it found five themes that students wanted to see reflected within the ‘university of tomorrow’.
- The importance of place
For students, the use of technology "has become second nature to them whether this be for studying, socialising or even banking", noted PwC's researchers.
Students are often enthusiastic early adopters when it comes to tech. But are universities keeping up? For example, how many offer mobile payments, contactless/NFC, Apple Pay and other alternative methods?
Students may see university departments as the perfect place for study, and nearby bars as a great place to hang out, but how many institutions offer PCI DSS-compliant, secure card payments right across their campus?
It's issues like these that create a major challenge and a big opportunity for universities in the year ahead.
Do universities think like businesses?
Amazingly, it's possible to be a multi-million-pound organisation, like a university, and yet have less choice and poorer security than the nearby sandwich shop that serves students.
For universities, it's essential that security standards qualify for first-class honours, that payment devices are never hacked and that students never get their card details stolen. After all, criminals don't only target high-street retailers: they go where the prize is largest and the pickings are easiest.
The good news is there are solutions to the problems, including simple ways to handle a wide range of payments methods easily and securely. With vast experience in the HE sector, the Elavon team is on hand to help.
At a time when universities are uneasy about the future, it's reassuring to know that some of your most profitable revenues streams are in safe hands.
 'A policy change away from collapse': universities' fears for 2018 - The Guardian