Deciphering the code

This week's A-level results may lead to the keenest clearing rush yet. But do universities' websites tell prospective students what they need to know, Hannah Fearn asks a panel of sixth-formers.

Most university websites don't show you information you want to know, they just show you the information that they want you to know. That's quite stupid really."

The comment, from a pupil at Didcot Sixth Form in Oxfordshire, is damning but representative. When Times Higher Education asked UK sixth-formers what they thought of university websites, the message was clear: applicants want to hear less from universities themselves, and much more from their students.

Gone are the days when a clear explanation of an undergraduate curriculum and an online prospectus would be enough to elicit an application. Today, prospective students going through the clearing process will want a "warts and all" guide to the university before they make a decision.

In the battle to attract undergraduates, a university's website is now the key tool in its marketing department's armoury. A good site will engage and excite applicants, is simple to navigate and provides necessary information quickly and easily.

We asked lower sixth-form pupils from three schools to review the websites of UK universities. The sites were assessed on their accessibility, the ease of making contact, use of online peer review, evidence of their unique role and character, and the amount of useful insight into life on campus (see box, page 33).

The criteria by which the sites were judged was drawn up with the assistance of James Allan, digital strategist at Mission Media and former student president of the University of the Arts London. The survey aimed to find the best examples of engagement with site visitors and the most effective use of emerging technologies.

The three schools taking part in the project - Didcot Sixth Form, Gillingham School and Chigwell School - are representative of the traffic that a UK university would expect to see from young applicants. Didcot and Gillingham are mixed state comprehensives, each with a large and successful sixth form whose students come from a variety of social groups. Pupils range from those preparing for Oxbridge to those who would not consider higher education a route open to them.

Chigwell School, meanwhile, is a mixed independent school, with fees averaging £4,000 per term. Nearly 99 per cent of its pupils go on to university, and 8 per cent of them to Oxbridge.

This is, of course, a very subjective study but the results are informative. Although it has not produced a ranking, it highlights the institutions already performing well, those judged to have an average website, and those that are lagging behind the rest.

While some university sites were received well by pupils, many were given a critical reception. And even those with outstanding marks for all other categories often fell short when it came to representing genuine student views online.

"I struggled to find student comments, and if I did they were always good and never bad ones," says one female pupil at Didcot Sixth Form. "There has to be one, at least one, student in the 20 universities I reviewed that would say 'actually, it wasn't for me'. I don't know why they didn't show that."

"There isn't really any feedback," another adds. "Feedback is a lot to do with how people look at things now. I would have liked feedback about the quality of the courses."

Meanwhile, a Chigwell student criticises the University of East London's site for offering "no details, no quotes, just lots of talk of development".

Mission Media's Allan says the study shows that the time for PR is over; it is now up to universities to find a more authentic voice. Sixth-formers can easily spot corporate copy about "yet another great and faultless course", he warns.

"An applicant wants to know what current students think of the course they are interested in, and that doesn't mean coerced student vox pops and sound bites. Like all consumers, they want 'on-the-ground' insight, unendorsed truths and imperfect descriptions."

Allan says universities must realise that when it comes to engaging with their potential applicants, they are no different from mega-brands such as Coca-Cola and Nike.

"Globally, brands are noticing a decreasing level of traffic to their websites and, almost equally, a rise in the number of people communicating with or about them through social media platforms," he says. "The British youth is actively discussing higher education online and very few universities are taking the initiative to join that conversation."

This means student discussion is unlikely to take place on the university website itself. Instead, students will meet and talk at the places where they naturally congregate online, on social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo and discussion boards such as The Student Room.

Research by Portfolio Communications earlier this year found that positive coverage online is often generated by independent bloggers and online reviewers. The analysis of more than 4,000 sites concluded that Glyndwr University had the best "buzz" about it in the blogosphere, while online reviewers were kindest to the University of Sheffield.

Yet in our survey, sixth-formers considered Sheffield's website to be one of the poorest performers in the sector, in part because it had failed to make good use of its positive profile elsewhere on the web. Sheffield scored just one point out of five when rated on access to current student opinion. The university admitted its "challenge" was to represent the student experience online.

Adrian Porter, head of strategic research at Precedent, a branding agency that has worked with a number of British universities, said that enlightened institutions will integrate Bebo, Facebook and the like into their sites "so as not to appear to have cherry-picked bright or corporate examples" for their own purposes.

Marketing managers may worry about the mixed messages such an approach may give out. But Wendy Frost, head of sixth form at Didcot, says she believes that even a negative experience could generate a positive response from applicants researching their choices online. "Maybe students talking about problems they had and how the university supported them would also be helpful."

Unfortunately for universities, the problems do not end there. The students found the websites difficult to negotiate and criticised their lack of accessibility.

"They looked hard for things, but if they couldn't find them, they said they weren't there," says Andrew Long, head of sixth form at Chigwell School.

"On their websites they don't have simple enough words," a female student at Didcot adds. "Not everyone who's going will get A-starred in everything. It is for students, and no students are really going to read that really posh language."

Her classmate, who intends to study computer science, concurs: "It's very hard to get the information that you want to get; it's really just about what courses they offer." He thinks more should be done to offer clear comparisons between universities on curriculum and course structure.

"Different courses have different titles and content, and different computer science courses would cover different content, which was very confusing. You wouldn't want to end up going to a great university that did a rubbish course or a rubbish university that did a great one ... it's hard to get a balance and to know."

Allan says this is a major problem for universities: "University websites are often the first experience an applicant will have with an institution and, still, very few university websites seem truly accessible."

The lack of clarity presents problems even for tutors. "Different universities and different courses have different ways of teaching, whether it's seminars or work placements," Frost says. "When you've got 150 institutions doing things differently, then to navigate through to find what you might want to do and how to do it is quite difficult. The website is a really good place to present that kind of information."

A further problem emerges when the information that students really need, such as course details, is isolated from the information they want - about accommodation, nightlife and the price of a pint. "The course information should be the beginning of the journey, not the destination," Precedent's Porter claims.

The "posh language" described is probably aimed at other key targets, such as business partners or research collaborators, but it may confuse or frighten off a 17-year-old aspiring undergraduate. Those universities placed high in the table have made conscious decisions to address issues of accessibility.

Kingston University, which appears in the list of best-performing sites, decided to put its students first. Web manager Matthew Osbourn says the prospective student is the website's "most important target audience". Kingston consulted both prospective and first-year students prior to a recent overhaul of the site.

"Our content is focused on them. We always have what we call 'the student voice' and what the current students have experienced. We are getting them to convey the information. The people answering questions are all current students, as opposed to people in the marketing department."

The site includes a tool that allows prospective undergraduates to create their own prospectus focusing on their needs, including the courses and campuses they are interested in and support services that may be most relevant to them. Students then receive their printed "personal prospectus" in the post.

Like Kingston, many of the best-performing websites on our list are tailored to the applicant. They also allow virtual access to life on campus, whether through a tour of the halls of residence and union bar or a chance to watch a lecture in action and browse the university library catalogue.

One student from Chigwell School says Exeter's site has "good virtual tours" of the campus. London's School of Oriental and African Studies, although considered average overall, is lauded for "excellent" virtual access to campus by another Chigwell candidate who labels it "colourful and interesting".

One Didcot reviewer, a girl unsure whether she would attend university, says such virtual tools "seem quite genuine. It's a good experience - you'll be able to tell the difference between lecturers."

At Precedent, Porter says that too often services such as access to the library catalogue, student union activity diary and faculty events are considered "internal facilities" and neglected when it comes to the website.

"Give potential students a view of the internal systems they will be using if they come to your university," he challenges. "Show them the virtual learning environment, let them search the catalogues, and perhaps even give them their own restricted log-in and an email address so that they can interact with you."

The key is to help make future students feel part of the student community long before freshers' week. But even if they have this access, what do potential students really understand about the community they are about to become a part of? A university's unique selling point is intended to communicate the essence of the institution, what makes it special, and what makes it the right destination for an applicant.

University marketing slogans, however, received a damning reception. Our sixth-formers couldn't remember any of the identities they had seen while browsing the sites. One student from Didcot says: "They put their selling point on the front page, but it's all generally the same."

Lower-scoring universities can learn from the outliers in today's list. Teesside University vice-chancellor Graham Henderson says his institution's success lies in "the fact that we have never lost sight of the overall aim of providing a lively, vibrant and dynamic environment, while still enabling students to easily find all the information they need". In practice, this means video and photography content and a clear distinction between sections of the website for different users.

At the University of Southampton, the web team has developed an interactive Q&A for prospective graduates, called Ask Southampton, and offers links to video testimonials from current students.

Meanwhile, at Imperial College London, Pamela Agar, head of digital media and marketing, says the institution encourages both students and staff to tag their photos of campus life and engage with prospective students through Flickr and YouTube. The Imperial site also features student blogs and "a week in the life" student profiles.

Northumbria University already expects to make changes as a result of this study. "The expectation of respondents to the THE survey - that warts-and-all reviews should routinely be declared and shared - is well worth knowing about. This is a fast-moving professional area in a highly competitive sector, so our web team will be quick to respond," a spokesman says.

The University of Glasgow, which is already performing well, plans to offer links to iTunes U.

The universities of York, Worcester and Wolverhampton all say that plans to overhaul their sites are in the offing.

Website technology and student demands are a movable feast, and many of the sites already do a proficient job. But if institutions can take one message from the sixth-formers' comments, it is that expectations are as hard to define as they are easily dashed. If university websites do not provide an accurate, comprehensive picture, it is not only the student but the institution that loses out when a first year sees a university dream turn into a nightmare.

"I think that's why a lot of people end up dropping out," a Didcot girl confides. "They don't really know what to, you know, expect ..."

Message received or virtually useless? Our panel give their verdicts

Best-performing institutions (scoring 20 points or more)AccessibilityContact informationPeer reviewUnique selling pointInsight
 
University of Abertay Dundee55443
Aston University55325
Bangor University55514
University of Buckingham44444
University of Cambridge44535
Edinburgh College of Art54555
University of Exeter35535
University College Falmouth44554
University of Glasgow45435
University of Greenwich55345
Harper Adams University College55354
Imperial College London55545
King’s College London44444
Kingston University45335
University of Kent53354
Leeds Metropolitan University55145
London School of Economics44354
Northumbria University44345
University of Nottingham55355
University of Oxford55555
Royal Agricultural College44354
University of Southampton45355
Swansea University 54344
Teesside University 55545
University of Wales, Lampeter54533
University of Wales, Newport55335
 
Worst-performing institutions (scoring 10 points or fewer)
 
Courtauld Institute of Art21112
Edge Hill University11215
Glasgow School of Art14221
University of Hull34111
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine24112
Manchester Metropolitan University23113
University of Sheffield23112
University of Wolverhampton43111
University of Worcester32112
University of York11521
Our survey reviewed the websites of 152 UK higher education institutions. Sixth-form students from Didcot Sixth Form, Gillingham School and Chigwell School were asked to mark sites from 1 to 5 for each of these criteria.

HOW BANGOR MAKES AN IMPACT

It's a well-designed and imaginative website," says a lower-sixth-form student at private college Chigwell School, heaping praise on Bangor University's homepage. He describes it as "modern", and welcomes the clever links to the institution on social networking site Facebook, and the use of video material labelled "Bangor TV".

In short, the site offers many of the features demanded by savvy sixth-formers when selecting a university. Its question-and-answer service is staffed by current students responding to applicants who have already made a bid for a place at Bangor.

Alan Parry, director of communications and marketing at Bangor, says the website undergoes regular updates to ensure that its "look and feel is attractive" to current and prospective students.

"We work with students to create user-generated content to give prospective recruits a real taste of Bangor throughout the site, and that has proved very successful," he explains. "We're delighted the site rated so highly (with THE's sixth-form reviewers)."

Parry says new technology is constantly introduced to the site, and the Bangor web team aim to update the site regularly with "interesting and innovative" material.

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