Identity challenges in higher education

Sam Jones by Sam Jones
Identity is often more complex in a University environment than it first appears.

One way to look at Universities, is to say that they are like businesses.

They have employees who work for the university, and they have customers (students) who pay money to consume the institution’s product. Indeed, becoming more business-like has been a broad strategic direction for Universities for many years now.

From a systems and software point of view this way of thinking is appealing! There is a vast market of software for business that academic IT departments can consume if they think less in terms of students and lecturers and more in terms of customers and employees. Certainly a lot of good has come from re-purposing software from industry.

But it’s not all roses, let’s talk about some of the problems here.

Separation of the user pool into distinct user types or systems

Thinking of our students as customers tends to lead us down a path where we create separate systems for our staff and students.

In a commercial organisation this is normally a very sensible thing to do. If we’re an organisation that makes widgets, the needs of our customers and staff are totally different with little or no overlap. Customers and staff will still both have identity information we need to keep track of. We could try and push that all into a single system, but what is the pay off if the two groups of users never access the same systems? On the other hand what is the risk of doing this? Adding our customers to the same identity infrastructure as our staff exposes us to possible priviledge escalation attacks that would be impossible if they are in separate systems..

User requirements in a University tend to have more overlap. Everyone is going to need access to email, files, and calendar. Most are going to need access to the online learning environment. There are some systems that only staff should have access to like finance and HR. There is also an array of smaller systems to support particular teaching and research objectives that only a few staff should have access to.

If we don’t want our users to drown in username and password combinations we’re goning to need a authentication system that grants access to all of these systems with a single set of credentials per user.

If we limit ourselves into thinking about just staff or just student when we’re thinking about our users, the systems we build reflect that. Hence we end up with an email system for students that’s totally separate from the email system for staff, or with separate files storage systems, desktop experiences, web portals, etc.

We un-wittingly build borders around our perceived user groups.

A lot of commercial software makes similar assumptions. For example it’s not uncommon to find help desk systems that assume you’re either a member of support staff or a customer with no nuances in between.

If you’re a company that sells widgets, how often does one of your customers login to the helpdesk system and start working on tickets? Probably not that often, but this kind of exception is quite common in HE.

Students and Staff and everything in between

One way things can get murky when we build these barriers, is it makes it hard for us to decide how to handle people who sit in the awkward middle ground.

Many times a university will want to treat certain classes of student more like staff and less like students, but not completely like staff! This happens a lot with PhD students who are often expected to take on teaching assistant roles. Similarly IT support roles are sometimes delegated to enthusiastic technically-able students.

When we make hard boundaries between the systems we provide for our users, limiting some and enhancing others, we make handling these edge case scenarios difficult or impossible.

We might decide to work around cases like this by spinning up a second IT identity for the student, one that represents their more staff-like role, and telling them to choose their identity based on the task at hand. This is confusing for users, but it’s also a problem from an auditing and compliance point of view. How are accounts like this managed? When do they get revoked? If there aren’t good answers to these questions this kind of work-around becomes a security hazard.

It’s common for Universityies to buy their own produce; and that’s good!

This behaviour of treating a student like a member of staff is a part of a larger process. It goes like this:

  1. Student attends university as undergraduate and studies hard.
  2. Student completes degree and decides to continue to a postgraduate degree
  3. Student starts to take on staff-like functions e.g: teaching
  4. Student finishes postgraduate degree and continues to carry out some staff like functions
  5. Student acquires post-doctoral role or lectureship and becomes “staff”

Universities, at their core, are in the business of knowledge. They train people to be knowledgeable and equip them to be able to create/discover knowledge. Obviously, it’s going to make sense for them to retain a portion of their graduates as staff. So this scenario is very common.

How does IT reflect this? We need to revoke access to systems that become inappropriate for them to access, we need to grant new access as it is necessary, we need to find a way to manage the murky middle ground as they transition from one role to the other.

As is often the case it’s easy to think of ways IT can drop the ball here, eg: revoke access to all students at the end of their course, there-by locking out our example user as well.

If we’ve separated out our user pool into grouping based on type then arguably we should find a way to manage this migration as seamlessly as possible. This is often very hard, commercial data migration tools tend only support migration paths that suit the commercial interests of the supplier. That is to say inbound migration tends to be easy and outbound migration … not so easy.

Even where a tool exists, often, some aspects of the data will be lost.

Sometimes this problem is passed to the user “Please backup your data so we can migrate you to the staff system.” before presenting them with a new and empty account after the migration.

More efficiency! More data responsibility! More utility!

There are several trends in HE IT right now that conflict with each other.

  • Data processing maturity is becoming increasingly important with big fines and scandals waiting for organisations that treat personal data poorly.

  • The current funding model means that higher education instituions are under pressure to reduce costs. Therefore where once an institution would have the capacity to run a service in house, it may now seek to move the function to an external provider. Allowing it to focus on core teaching and learning functions1.

  • Society as a whole expects to get more from IT than ever before.

These requirements compete with each other for time and money. If our identity model is complex and data handling maturity is important for compliance, an answer might be to develop and run systems in house but the cost is high and it robs our core business functions of resources.

Off the shelf and Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions are comparatively cheap, but they often have a security model that doesn’t neatly match our identity scenario. If unchecked we can end up handling sensitive data poorly because of this, or add unwanted complexity from a user point of view.

The amount of sensitive data a University might handle is huge, just think about the strong links that Universities often have with hospitals! Most students are older than 18, but pre-access programs and similar mean that not all are. Many students live in University owned and run premises, which leads to yet more information security risks.

Who is a part of your organisation?

E-resource providers license their content to Universities. As a part of the terms of such contracts, Universities must authenticate their users and make statements about the user’s membership of the University. The E-resource then restricts based on those statements. This can only work because the statements the Universities make are expected to be accurate.

If we grant an external organisation some level of access to our systems and give their users identities within our infrastructure, then should those people also get access to the licensed content? Clearly not, but this limitation must be expressed by the IT System to adequately effect the restrictions of the license. Otherwise, the likely default of those user accounts represents a breach of the license terms.

This goes deeper as you explore the myriad of relationships Universities have with people:

  • Some Universities make their libraries open to the public, what IT access should these people get?

  • Sometimes a professor will retire after a long career but continue to carry out their important work for their now former employer. How do we know when to revoke this access so that we’re managing our user population maturely? What systems should they have access to?

  • Universities also have alumni and may wish to extend services to them, but without jeopardizing the rest of the estate.

So what to do?

We’re a long way from the student and staff model we started with. Identity provision is a complex task in a University environment and the right path depends on the exact requirements, but there are some things that can help:

  • Rich identity management that accurately reflects your users roles is key.
  • Buy into software and services which provide rich controls over access and permissions, and can ideally externalize these.
  • Avoid software that pushes you compromise your users experience because of an inferior access model.
  • Avoid software that has its own authentication system and cannot integrate with your wider authentication infrastructure.
  • Avoid software that makes it hard to honour your data processing compliance obligations.

Get help!

Do these issues strike a cord with you, or maybe you’re finding yourself in a similar situation? If so consider getting in touch, we’re only to happy to help!


  1. Switching from a legacy IT System is rarely as clean as this, often ending in a situation where both new and old worlds exist in parrallel for some time.