What a tangled web we weave

November 9, 2007

Websites are the public face of universities - why are so many unfriendly and unhelpful? asks Anthony Haynes. Do you sometimes wonder why someone else was offered a lucrative consultancy, featured in the media or commissioned to write a book when you were more qualified? Or why the perfectly good course you've developed fails to attract the quantity or quality of applications it deserves?

The answer may well lie in your institution's website. If the world's gatekeepers - the commissioners of articles, research, lecture tours and the like - were sitting waiting for proposals to arrive, the quality of your website wouldn't matter. But such people often work proactively, looking for people who can solve their problems.

I edit a series of scholarly monographs in education studies. It's a new series - the first books will appear next autumn - so I need to search for authors. That I am in contact with Southampton University's School of Education is not just because it produces interesting work (many centres do). It is also because Southampton has research web pages that are easily navigable.

At www.education.soton.ac.uk/research the "Find an expert" link goes to an alphabetical list of research interests (A for academic writing, B for bilingual education, and so on). This is not rocket science, but it is a facility that most institutions' websites lack. If I don't want to search a list, I can click on "research centres" and scan a simple diagram instead, or search "research clusters", "research projects" or "research publications". If there's someone at Southampton doing something I need to know about, one way or another, I will find them.

Although the site won't win prizes for aesthetics, it makes Southampton a place I want to do business with. Almost as much as Lancaster University! Four clicks from its home page are the research interests of academics in the School of Education (www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/edres/activities/current/interests). Again, one can search in various ways - by keyword, by research group and so on. The visual design may be a tad amateurish, but who cares? The site works.

Unfortunately, the navigability of typical academic websites is nowhere near as clear. Links are often ambiguous; one never knows whether "schools" goes to information about secondary school liaison or a list of academic departments. It's anyone's guess whether "departments" are academic centres (geography, say) or administrative units such as human resources. On some sites, "research" links to pages detailing the research by academic staff, but on others to pages to help postgraduate enrolments.

Although some website problems amount to no more than minor annoyances, others undermine the aims of their host institutions. If, for example, your employer claims to promote wider access, you can test it by putting yourself in the shoes of a prospective undergraduate visiting your website.

Suppose, for example, you wish to study sport and you visit the University of Central Lancashire website (www.uclan.ac.uk). With a single click you can see the courses available, another click will take you to subject outlines, and a third to course-specific information. With a fourth click you get to a PDF providing further information that is clear, detailed and easy to print. This is almost as good as Gloucestershire University, where the "course map" and "module descriptor" pages are so informative that I almost feel I could teach myself a sports degree without attending the university,

But most universities fall way below this standard. One university nominated for the coveted Times Higher University of the Year award, for example, seems to expect students to plump for courses - and the subsequent five-figure debt - on the basis of banal, cliched, 200-word course descriptions.

For the sector to achieve the Government's targets for participation in higher education, foundation programmes in particular need to expand. Yet prospective students using the internet to research opportunities will find it difficult to discover even which courses actually exist. I have, for example, looked for courses in project management and in the general area of writing, publishing and applied literature. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (www.ucas.ac.uk) gives listings by university, but when I follow links to websites I often find courses have vanished down virtual cracks between those institutions and the further education colleges they supposedly partner.

As the emphasis for the evaluation of academics shifts from the research assessment exercise, with its gold standard based on the submission of four peer-reviewed journal articles, to a broader system of metrics, a wider range of academic activity will come under scrutiny. University staff will need as much opportunity as possible to interact with the outside world. Their employers, therefore, have a duty to provide effective website support.

The good news is that many improvements to websites require minimal financial, technological or managerial support. Clarifying a link label by adding "for" or "about" before the word "staff" could be done today. And by making improvements you can rapidly move ahead of the field. The average university website is bland in design and caters for selected stakeholders. Prospective students? Yes, probably. External businesses or the general public that pays the tax that keeps the system afloat? Rarely.

The best news is that there's no need to reinvent the wheel. There are good sites that can easily be imitated. A straw poll of academic publishers reveals strong shared preferences. Refreshingly, the Russell Group doesn't dominate. If we were awarding degree classes for academic websites, the consensus is that Bournemouth and Chester would deserve at least high 2:1s and Coventry a clear first. And if there were a gold medal, I would award it (undemocratically, I confess) to Harper Adams College (www.harper-adams.ac.uk).

Anthony Haynes is partner at the Professional and Higher Partnership and visiting professor at Beijing Normal University.

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