Managing student access

Managing student access

The management of access control in higher education is complex. Paul Brady, HID’s End User Business Manager for Physical Access Control looks at how smartphone-based solutions can solve day-to-day operational headaches and deliver real future value.

As demand soars in higher education, managing student access must go mobile and smart

It’s boom time for higher education in the UK. Over 2.86 million students are enrolled in courses at the moment[1], with the demand for places high despite the disruption caused by the global coronavirus pandemic and impact of Brexit. At the end of the 2022 admissions cycle, around 767,000 applications from UK and international students were received through UCAS for full time undergraduate places, with 560,000 people accepted by universities and colleges. This set a new record.[2]

The forecast is bullish, too. Commentators estimate 30%+ growth with circa 1 million students applying by 2030[3] – an optimistic prediction which they say is on track especially given ONS data shows a significant increase in the 18-year-old population cohort. This is clearly excellent news for the 277 colleges and 166 universities which make up the UK’s higher education sector.

Such growth presents a whole raft of operational challenges for institutions, not least about how to manage student access—efficiently, effectively and securely—when on campus.

This is complex as anyone working in a higher education IT, security services or estates departments will know. One of the primary challenges is the sheer size of institutions given universities and colleges often have sprawling campuses with numerous buildings, each serving diverse functions.

Managing physical access across this expansive landscape demands security infrastructure which is comprehensive yet flexible. The user base adds another layer of complexity. Students, faculty, staff and visitors each have their own access needs, dictating a nuanced approach to control.

The transient nature of the academic community presents another obvious problem, too. New students arrive, others graduate and faculty members move on. Managing credentials, ensuring timely updates, and revoking access for those who no longer need it requires a streamlined and responsive system. Failure to do so can result in breaches and security gaps.

Using smartphones for access control

A practical way to address these issues is to transition away from using physical plastic access cards—which utilise RFID technology—to smartphone-based solutions running on any iOS or Android device. These leverage virtual credential technology connecting to mobile-enabled door readers to allow people to enter.

Mobile access solutions deliver a raft of benefits for institutions, staff and students:

  1. Wireless credentialling. Software-based management running in the cloud makes it straightforward to deal with the licensing, allocation of virtual credentials, setting of building access rights, validating or revoking of IDs—all remotely. The upshot? Mobile access makes life far easier for time-pressed staff as systems are much simpler to manage and use. This is especially the case at peaks times like September, when student enrollment can be done at a touch of a button rather than IDs having to be posted or people having to stand in queues for them. A student simply gets an email to their phone, they tap on a link, the app automatically uploads and a mobile credential is granted.
  2. Time and attendance. Institutions can introduce time and attendance monitoring to ensure students are attending lectures. It’s simply ‘tap and go’ on a reader leveraging the Bluetooth technology in a smartphone. This provides campus data on whether students are actively taking part in their courses, as well as addressing duty of care issues.
  3. Enhance the student experience. By integrating access control with digital campus cards, institutions can augment the whole student experience in what is an ever-competitive education sector. Students then have everything they need in the palm of their hand: a tool to access buildings such as libraries, halls of residences and gyms, as well as other services like printing, vending machines, car parks and so on.

This makes the life of a student far easier, boosts their well-being through secure technology, with the universities and colleges who have implemented such solutions seen a pioneering in terms of how they are improving the working environment.

In addition, the use of campus apps means better outbound communication. For example, health and safety announcements, student discounts and offers, promotional campaigns from brands, along with updates about events and lectures. The smartphone in effect becomes the primary interaction tool between the institution and the student—important given Gen Z digital native students expect institutions to provide this type of solution anyhow.

Integration isn’t hard to achieve. Products that are interoperable and support industry standards are available. Using open APIs and software development kits, integration is simplified, enabling institutions to create a modern ecosystem whilst avoiding vendor lock-in.

  1. Seamless and straightforward transitioning. To implement mobile access, door readers first need to be checked. The latest models support mobile access out-of-the-box. Others can be upgraded [really old ones have to be replaced]. It’s then just a case of obtaining and installing the mobile access solution—a smartphone app and server-side tools—and integrating this with whatever building management or security systems are in place.

Many readers support both physical RFID cards and virtual credentials so staged roll outs are possible. This is ideal where a ‘big bang’ switchover would be too complicated or costly. It should be noted that the latest credential technology—irrespective of whether it’s on a card or phone—can’t be copied either by a student buying a cheap cloning device online.

  1. Touch in and out for fast access. With support for both Bluetooth and NFC[4]—two technologies enabling data transfer over short distances—mobile access solutions provide touchless entry just like traditional physical cards. This makes it as fast for everyone to open doors.
  2. Enhanced security and safety. Mobile-based credentials and door readers support the latest encryption, communications and authentication standards just like physical access cards. Mobile has other security benefits. First, users—even students—take far more care looking after their expensive smartphones compared to plastic access cards. Each time one is lost, it creates a security risk. Second, if someone does indeed lose their smartphone, they'll clock this far quicker (who can function without a phone these days?) with their digital credential then able to be quickly disabled wirelessly. It is this remote management capability which is so fundamentally better.
  3. Environmentally friendly. It is estimated that more than 550 million PVC access cards are made and sold annually each year, creating 2,700 tons of plastic waste and emitting 11,400 tons of carbon emissions. Digital credentials remove this damaging environmental overhead in one fell swoop.
  4. Big cost savings. The migration away from plastic RFID access cards presents institutions with a real opportunity to save money by not printing, issuing and replacing physical cards. But it is the efficiency gain which is so key, too. Staff are freed from dull (card) administrative tasks so they can focus on more productive aspects of their jobs.
  5. A key enabler for a smarter use of buildings. No longer is access control just a way to prevent entry to a building by unauthorized people. As the technology has evolved, it is playing a far greater strategic role to enhance the operational engineering, maintenance and functioning of buildings. This is well known in the commercial corporate real estate sector, but presents academic institutions with opportunities, too.

One of the most exciting developments is the forthcoming availability of solutions with built-in ‘identity positioning’. This provides real-time information ‘behind the door’ about how people are using a building—based on data provided by their phones. This is certainly not “Big Brother” tracking an individual as no personal and private data is collected. Rather, anonymized information is grouped in order to provide an overall picture about trends like space utilization, occupancy and so on.

It moves access control from just being a security solution to one that takes on more significance in building management as identity positioning adds the context of location. Take a simple example. By providing real-time data like this to an appropriate HVAC system, the AC could be turned up automatically if a group of 200 people gather in a room for a lecture.

In summary, mobile access solutions are evolving to not only make the whole credentialling process much easier to manage but they offer institutions a way to make their operations ever more efficient and ‘green’. Not only that, but they’re cost effective and quick to deploy.

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