College security procedures are under review as professional thieves target campuses in an epidemic of computer chip crime.
Thousands of pounds worth of equipment, coursework and even college records have been lost in a rising tide of high-tech raids, often done to order and apparently with inside knowledge.
The Metropolitan Police last month launched a working group to co-ordinate intelligence and devise strategies to combat the new breed of so-called RAM (random access memory) raiders.
The joint action group, a forum of manufacturers including IBM, Compaq and Apple and major users such as BT, British Airways and the Prudential, will draw up strategies to tackle a crime which cost businesses an estimated Pounds 200 million last year.
Excess demand for computer chips and memory boards, which are made by only a handful of companies, has been exacerbated by the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, previously a major manufacturing centre. The thumbnail-sized chips, worth several hundred pounds each, are relatively easy to steal and difficult to trace.
According to principals of several large colleges, computer crime has now overtaken vandalism, personal safety and other theft as their main security worry on campuses.The raids are costing the colleges hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
Multi-site colleges are particularly at risk. City and Islington College in London, which has 13 centres, has suffered a number of losses, most recently Pounds 6,000 worth of chips were taken by intruders disguised as maintenance men.
Principal Tom Jupp says: "It used to be whole computers but now they are just after the chips. These people are very professional and know exactly what they are looking for. It is a level of organised crime that we are quite unused to dealing with. It has really got worse over the last couple of years at a time when we are making a much bigger investment in IT. We have 920 computer terminals and that is a hell of a lot of money sitting there."
Lambeth College in London has suffered several major thefts of computer chips in the past year. In one abortive attempted burglary, students on a lesson break returned to their room to find thieves posing as staff technicians tampering with computers. Director of administration Ian Kellett believes that old or rundown college buildings present easy pickings for thieves. "Against a background of building neglect, colleges and schools can be soft touches. "
Many colleges are facing mounting insurance premiums and extra security costs as they attempt to combat the crimewave.
Sheffield principal Ken Ruddiman says the South Yorkshire college has been a sitting target and is now virtually uninsurable as a result of losses estimated at Pounds 100,000. "It is a major security problem. We have always had it but in the last three years it has got out of all proportion."
Like other large inner city colleges, Sheffield has a number of old properties which are difficult to secure. Preventative measures including closed-circuit television and security patrols have failed to deter the thieves.
Colleges are particularly at risk because of the large numbers of people using their premises each day. Although swipe card entry and ID systems, surveillance cameras and security guards are now commonplace, in many of raiders have gained inside knowledge of the buildings.
Ken Ruddiman is reluctant to introduce high-profile security at a time when colleges are seeking to attract new students by projecting a welcoming environment.
"We want campuses to be accessible but we don't want just anyone wandering in. A lot of our premises weren't built to be secure," he says.
Despite suffering "substantial" losses during a recent break-in, Barnsley College principal David Eade has no plans to replace his in-house security guards. "We don't want a presence that is too heavy or intimidating."
During the latest raid, police arrested one of the gang members, who was from south London, confirming police suspicions that criminals are operating on a national and even international scale.
A spate of thefts at three colleges and a university on the south coast last year were linked to an export trade in stolen components. At Highbury College in Portsmouth around 30 new Apple Macintosh computers were taken by a gang who had brought lifting equipment to bypass the alarmed lower floors and gain access to a third-floor computer suite.
"They knew exactly what they were looking for," said college vice principal Lewis Derbyshire. "The impression we got was that they were stealing to order because they left equally valuable equipment behind. You need a high level of defence against sophisticated criminals who have sussed out the alarm system and brought equipment to get into the building."
Cash constraints have discouraged some colleges from installing disabling devices in computers. Alarms costing Pounds 20 each can represent a significant expenditure for institutions with as many as 1,000 terminals.
However, Southwark College has installed surveillance equipment and alarms which trigger smoke bombs following burglaries at its Surrey Docks site. Principal Stuart Evans admits it is a "fairly extreme step" but computer chip thefts, which previously accounted for more than 90 per cent of their crime, have gone down as a result. Blackburn College reported minimal losses after investing in a sophisticated alarms system.
Research by the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which has just completed a survey of the problem, found that computer theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes. Computer chip theft has increased most in the Midlands, where it is up by 74 per cent in the past year. Several thousand pounds worth of chips were removed from new computers soon after they were delivered to Solihull College.
Thieves had dismantled and reassembled the machines and staff only realised they had been hit when they turned them on.
"We have taken steps to ensure it doesn't happen again" said principal Colin Flint, "but colleges generally aren't in a position to guard against this kind of thing because they don't have the money."