British universities will be issued with overhauled security guidance after a warning by MI5 on the risk of foreign-sponsored cyber-attacks, it has been reported.

According to The Financial Times, vice chancellors of leading universities were reminded by MI5’s outgoing head Sir Jonathan Evans that universities are now considered part of the country’s critical infrastructure and must take steps to secure research data and intellectual property.

It’s not clear what steps university heads have already taken to secure sensitive data but Universities UK is said to be in the process of creating a security guidance document.

“We are drawing the sector’s attention to these issues,” Professor Eric Thomas of Universities UK was quoted by the FT as saying.

 “We are saying you have to understand that you will be subject to purposeful attacks to get your data. Universities need to be on high alert.”

The newspaper mentions IP around grapheme research, aerospace and quantum computing as being possible targets although there are many others that could make the list including the UK's expertise in super-computing.

Universities are now at the forefront of cyber-security research and recruitment as demonstrated by this week's Government decision to fund the Global Centre for Cyber Security Capacity Building in Oxford University’s Martin School.

That role is strategic in that it ties academia explicitly into the development of UK cyber-defence policy and thinking.

“Academics are quite trusting people and sharing data is absolutely part of their DNA,” Thomas said. “There’s some tension here between being an open organisation and showing colleagues what you are doing and being more closed.”