I was pleased to read in the Guardian Online that the University of Brighton (one of the many Higher Education sites I have been involved in) has come second in a review of the top one hundred University web sites. However, I then noticed that the University of Portsmouth, which I also designed, came 179th out of 200! Unsurprisingly I found this discrepancy disturbing so decided to look into things more closely.
Problems with the survey
Although it was nice to read an article that recognised the importance of the web in ensuring the success of University recruitment, I did feel that the survey itself lacked any real credibility. It read more like a desperate attempt to attract business on behalf of UCTV who commissioned the report and was I somewhat amazed that the Guardian decided to run it.
With an assessment panel of only 13 users, the results can have very little statistical value. Admittedly, the company that commissioned the survey recognises that fact and describe it as a "toe in the water". However, in my more cynical moments I might describe it as nothing more than very good PR for their organisation! Setting my cynicism aside, I can say that it does probably correctly identify a underlying problem with university web sites. Nevertheless, I doubt the ranking really means anything. For example, the percentage difference between the various ranking positions was so small that on a test base of 13 they become meaningless.
The other thing that concerns me is that the sites were being assessed by a very narrow demographic. All 13 testers were British A level students. University sites have to appeal to a much greater demographic including, but not limited to:
- Mature students
- International students
- Postgraduate students
- Research students
- Parents (often forgotten in the process of choosing a University)
- The media
- Existing students
- Former students
As you can see the survey failed to grasp the breadth of people that University web sites have to reach.
Limited assessment criteria
The assessment criteria used seemed to revolve around usability concerns and content. Although I cannot over emphasis the importance of these two areas, they are not the only criteria a web site has to consider. In particular, how accessible the site is should have been a key consideration. Accessibility is a hot topic with Universities not only because of the legislation on the issue but also because making a site accessible can directly affect recruitment figures. Headscape did a report on this subject late last year and found that very few Universities or colleges had seriously addressed the issue.
Lessons to learn
Although, in my opinion, the survey only has no significant value I do think that the associated article makes some interesting points. It is time for Universities to address the issue of their web sites. It is true that a large majority of applicants rely as heavily on the web as they do on the paper prospectuses when choosing a university to attend. This is an audience very comfortable with communicating through the electronic medium and the Higher education sector needs to cater to that need. I strongly believe that those who fail to address these concerns could face serious recruitment problems over the coming years that could jeopardise their continued existence in a very competitive market place. What saddens me is that the Guardian undermines these legitimate points by constructing their argument on such a weak piece of research.