8 Steps to Cultivate a Culture of Risk Awareness in Higher Education

Over the last few years, the education industry has increased its dependency on third-party service providers, expanding the average attack surface and escalating the importance of comprehensive risk awareness. Higher education institutions that rely on large vendor ecosystems must develop robust cultures of risk awareness to safeguard their data and daily operations from cyber attacks, data breaches, and other disruptions. 

Throughout 2023, cybercriminals targeted the higher education sector with an overwhelming onslaught of cybercrime, including 70% more ransomware attacks and severe data breaches that cost USD 3.7 million on average. To combat this complex and problematic arsenal, higher education institutions need to make cybersecurity an organization-wide priority, educating and mobilizing all employees, including those without “risk” in their title. 

This article explores the importance of cultivating a culture of risk awareness in higher education and offers practical insights into how educational institutions can improve their cybersecurity awareness overall. 

Calibrate your third-party risk awareness with UpGuard Vendor Risk.

Why risk awareness matters

Establishing a risk-aware culture improves an organization’s resilience and business continuity holistically. By cultivating a culture of risk awareness, your higher education institution will be able to navigate cybersecurity challenges and uncertainties seamlessly. Here are the main benefits establishing a risk-aware culture can have on your organization: 

  • Increased ownership: In a risk-aware culture, employees better understand potential risks, are more motivated to engage with their work, and take ownership of critical responsibilities that could impact an organization’s security posture and sustainability.
  • Improved adaptability: In a risk-aware culture, employees are encouraged to explore new opportunities and embrace changes. This adaptability can substantially impact the organization’s overall ability to innovate and navigate challenges.
  • Efficient resource allocation: In a risk-aware culture, personnel quickly identify and eliminate redundant processes, freeing themselves to direct resources and energy toward critical cybersecurity initiatives. 
  • Enhanced compliance adherence: In a risk-aware culture, compliance management is more effortless. Risk-aware personnel stay up-to-date on compliance risks and are motivated to apply these updates to internal controls, eliminating non-compliance and reputational risks across the board.

Risk awareness is also critical in higher education because universities are prime targets for cyber attacks due to their vast repositories of sensitive data. By understanding their threat landscape and fostering a culture of risk awareness, educational institutions can safeguard sensitive information, enhance decision-making, preserve trust among students and stakeholders, and protect their operations from malicious cybercriminals. 

Cultivating a risk-aware culture in higher education

To cultivate a risk-aware culture in higher education, institutions must develop senior stakeholder support, educate employees, foster open lines of communication, and prioritize enterprise risk management (ERM) expertise during talent acquisition and recruitment. Here’s how each of these factors can impact a higher education institution’s culture: 

  • Stakeholder support: Senior leaders and management are the rutters of any institution. By organizing strong stakeholder support, your institution can develop a foundation of risk awareness across all departments and personnel. 
  • Employer education: Every employee can be an attack vector, especially in an industry like higher education, plagued by phishing and ransomware attacks. Educating employees on common cyber threats, top risks in education, prevention mechanisms, and general risk awareness can fortify an institution's cyber defenses. 
  • Open communication: A culture of risk awareness promotes innovation, creative thinking, and change. However, establishing these three principles in an institution’s culture is impossible without open communication across departments and personnel. 
  • Talent management: Not all roles and responsibilities will require robust knowledge of cybersecurity processes and initiatives. However, prioritizing an individual’s ability to understand and learn basic risk management practices and methodology should be factored into every hiring and retention decision. 

Stakeholder support, employee education, open communication, and talent management are the pillars a higher education institution needs to establish before developing a risk awareness culture. Once the institution has constructed these pillars, it can follow several practical steps to cultivate a culture of risk awareness throughout the organization. 

8 Steps to Build a Culture of Risk Awareness

In higher education, cultivating a culture of risk awareness is essential. Cyber threats continue to evolve, and your organization needs to prepare. Building a culture of risk awareness will not only help your organization mitigate potential cyber threats, but it will also help safeguard sensitive data and the trust of your stakeholders. Here are eight actionable steps your institution can take to foster a culture of risk awareness. 

1. Evaluate current risk awareness 

Before your institution implements any new initiatives, it needs to take stock of the existing level of risk awareness across the organization. You can assess your institution’s current level of risk awareness by conducting surveys, holding group discussions, and organizing workshops to gauge cybersecurity awareness across departments and roles. This evaluation will provide your institution a baseline to target specific improvements, whether fostering increased stakeholder support, improving employee education, or communicating expectations.  

2. Create a culture roadmap

Using your previous evaluation, your institution can develop a comprehensive plan that outlines what steps it needs to take to cultivate a culture of risk awareness. This roadmap should include specific goals (develop a cybersecurity education program for employees), timelines (by the end of Q2), and responsibilities (risk personnel will lead the development of the education program). By creating a clear roadmap, your institution will have an easier time tracking its progress and staying accountable. 

3. Ensure stakeholder support

Foster buy-in from key stakeholders, including senior leadership and department heads, by highlighting the devastating effects cyber attacks or data breaches could have on the institution and emphasizing how risk awareness can combat these threats. Establishing support at all levels and in all departments is crucial for cultivating holistic risk awareness and driving long-term effectiveness. 

4. Educate employees

Develop and provide comprehensive training programs that educate personnel on the leading cyber threats in higher education, TPRM best practices, and each employee's role in mitigating threats and protecting the institution. Your institution can also offer ongoing training sessions to inform employees of emerging threats and get new hires up to speed. By reinforcing good security habits, your institution will develop a well-informed workforce that is the first line of defense against cyber attacks. 

5. Communicate expectations

Stakeholders and department heads should communicate expectations regarding risk awareness and developing good security practices. Your institution can also develop organizational policies that stakeholders and department heads can use to enforce their expectations and regularly remind employees of their responsibilities and the consequences of failing to adhere to security protocols.

6. Deploy drills

Your higher education institution can conduct cybersecurity drills and mock attack attempts to test employee awareness and simulate a phishing attempt or cyber attack. These exercises will help department heads and your security team identify gaps in awareness and proactively develop solutions and strategies. In addition, by practicing their responses to cyber attack attempts, employees will be more confident and better equipped to handle real-world situations. 

7. Monitor progress

Now that your institution has started establishing a culture of risk awareness, you should develop metrics to measure the effectiveness of your program and culture roadmap. You can track critical indicators of success, such as the percentage of employee enrollment in training programs, average incident response time during mock texts, and the number of reported security incidents compared to the number of simulated attacks your security team deployed. Department heads should also monitor localized progress across their direct reports to see if their department is on pace compared to others. 

8. Reevaluate culture

The final step in developing a culture of risk awareness in your higher education institution is to reevaluate your culture occasionally. Risk awareness is an ongoing process, and cyber threats will continue to evolve. By periodically conducting an internal audit to reassess your institution’s risk awareness, you can identify areas for improvement and growth. You can also solicit feedback from employees and department heads to gauge what initiatives or processes worked and which ones you need to refine further. 

Common mistakes to avoid when creating a risk-aware culture

Developing a risk-aware culture in higher education involves numerous moving parts and can be inherently challenging. While the benefits of cultivating a culture of risk awareness are clear, there are also several common pitfalls your institution must avoid. By understanding these mistakes, your institution can strengthen its resilience and risk management plan:

  • Waiting for a breach to occur: One of the most significant mistakes organizations make is waiting for a cybersecurity breach to occur before prioritizing risk awareness. Data breaches can be devastating in the education sector, and it can be challenging for affected institutions to return to normalcy after the fact. 
  • Not accounting for all departments: Another critical mistake higher education institutions occasionally make is failing to cultivate a culture or risk awareness in all departments. Every department of an institution, from Human Resources to Information Technology, plays a role in cybersecurity and should be risk-aware. 
  • Communication silos: Ineffective communication is one of the leading factors that contributes to the downfall of an institution’s ability to cultivate risk awareness. To combat this, leadership teams must develop open communication channels and encourage employee participation.
  • Failure to act: The most detrimental mistake higher education institutions make regarding risk awareness is failing to act. Recognizing the need for risk awareness is not enough; organizations must prioritize cultivating a risk-aware culture at every level. 

To navigate the complexities of cultivating a culture of risk awareness, higher education leaders can leverage a robust cybersecurity solution, like UpGuard, to streamline their efforts and enhance their cybersecurity posture. 

How can UpGuard help higher education institutions improve risk awareness

UpGuard provides higher education security teams with a centralized platform to identify, assess, and mitigate significant risks across their institution's internal systems and third-party partnerships. By using UpGuard to understand their risk profile, identify operational risks and vulnerabilities, automate workflows, and gain real-time insights, higher ed institutions can facilitate collaboration among stakeholders and further cultivate their culture of risk awareness. 

Here’s how UpGuard can help your organization strengthen its risk awareness and cybersecurity defenses: 

  • Security ratings: Objective, data-driven measurements of an organization’s cyber hygiene
  • Security questionnaires: Flexible questionnaires that accelerate the assessment process and provide deep insights into a vendor’s security
  • Reports library: Tailor-made templates that support security performance communication to executive-level stakeholders  
  • Risk mitigation workflows: Comprehensive workflows to streamline risk management processes and improve overall security posture
  • Integrations: Application integrations for Jira, Slack, ServiceNow, and over 4,000 additional apps with Zapier, plus customizable API calls
  • Data leak protection: Protect your brand, intellectual property, and customer data with timely detection of data leaks and avoid data breaches
  • 24/7 continuous monitoring: Real-time notifications and new risk updates using accurate supplier data
  • Attack surface reduction: Reduce your attack surface by discovering exploitable vulnerabilities and domains at risk of typosquatting
  • Trust Page: Eliminate having to answer security questionnaires by creating an UpGuard Trust Page
  • Intuitive design: Easy-to-use first-party dashboards‍
  • World-class customer service: Plan-based access to professional cybersecurity personnel that can help you get the most out of UpGuard

Get started improving your risk awareness with UpGuard Vendor Risk in minutes!

Ready to see
UpGuard in action?

Ready to save time and streamline your trust management process?