Inadequate websites could be harming universities’ ability to attract prospective students

Software testing company Edge Testing Solutions analysed the effectiveness and functionality of university websites across a range of metrics, including speed, image quality and ease of navigation

Many UK universities are being let down by underperforming websites, according to new research by Edge Testing Solutions – part of Eurofins Digital Testing.

In a bid to test whether higher education websites have been built to withstand the increased pressure brought about by the recent shift to remote or hybrid learning, virtual open days and other digital events, Edge Testing conducted daily repeated tests of 131 UK university websites over a six day period, hoping to measure the quality of user experience (UX) for each university through a range of metrics, such as:

  • Ease of navigation – which universities support an efficient and stress-free UX and which force visitors to manoeuvre a virtual obstacle course?
  • Speed – which landing pages loaded quickly and responded well and which ones were the opposite?
  • Image quality – which universities were hindered by websites that took longer to load due to low quality imagery and which were correctly displayed and crystal clear?
  • Broken links – which institutions held dead website links that led to 404s or irrelevant pages?

As the only institution to appear in the top 10 for all metrics tested, the University of Cambridge was found to have the best website, followed by Cardiff University and the University of Birmingham; all three of which form part of the Russell Group – a self-selected association of research universities that is often perceived to represent the ‘best’ in the UK.

Cambridge had the best website in terms of functionality, and yet, its Oxbridge counterpart – the University of Oxford – only came top for ease of navigation. Sharon Hamilton, MD of Eurofins Digital Testing, has warned that a navigation shortfall could “put off” potential future students “if they can’t find exactly what they came to the site for in the first place”, especially at a time when “universities should be doing everything in their powers to encourage students to find out more”.

Navigation turned out to be the main issue bugging higher education websites, with 36% of those tested having unsatisfactory navigation features – a figure that jumped to 55% on mobile websites – which prevented users from moving freely and easily through them. Not a single site that was tested achieved a ‘B’ grade for navigation, let along earning an ‘A’.

“If you want to know whether the best universities in the UK also have the best websites, Edge Testing has revealed if that is the case in this research” – Sharon Hamilton, Eurofins Digital Testing

Websites generally performed better when it came to loading speed, for which universities received ‘B’ grades across the board. It took an average of 2.61 seconds for sites to become fully interactive, while the average among Russell Group universities was one full second shorter.

Of the 131 institutions surveyed, only four (3%) displayed images to an ‘A’ grade standard, according to the Website Speed Test tool. Most (64%) were awarded a ‘B’.

Universities also seemed to be on the ball when it came to broken links, with most sites having less than 1.5% currently online. One university website, however, was confirmed to be hosting 18% non-functioning links. There were also five sites which were found to have more than 5% of links that don’t work – none of which were owned by Russell Group universities.

“IT failures appear in the news daily, but just as important is how websites perform. All through the COVID-19 pandemic, websites have had more traffic than ever before as more people stuck at home visited more sites and did shopping online. Now, with the start of the term fast approaching, there will be a significant jump in university website traffic as students visit their own universities’ sites and share them with family and friends,” Hamilton told ET.

“A rise in remote learning, online open days and virtual class attendance will also see universities’ website visitor numbers grow,” she added, also stating that not all sites will be able to handle the surge in visitor numbers.

“Edge’s research highlights those [universities] that need to work on improvements immediately and those that already have better-functioning websites in terms of navigation, load speed, image quality and links,” said Hamilton. “If you want to know whether the best universities in the UK also have the best websites, Edge Testing has revealed if that is the case in this research.”

In other news: HE institutions paying huge mark-up on tech products during pandemic, says report


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