How can UK universities utilise digital experience to combat the impact of the demographic dip and falling student numbers?

How can University of Sydney improve the performance of their course details page?

The Global Reviews European team recently attended the Higher Education Marketing Conference in London, and with most of the major universities in attendance it was a thoroughly interesting day filled with plenty of engaging presentations covering a broad range of topics. Many of the speakers discussed, from a variety of perspectives, the falling numbers of students applying to universities in the UK. This blog post does not endeavour to further analyse or discuss the reasons for or the impact of this but will rather discuss (on a very small scale, this is only a blog post after all) how universities can use digital experience in order to convince students to apply, and to choose them as their firm choice.

A recent study conducted by Global Reviews, which benchmarked 10 UK university websites, showed us that the university website is the most important touchpoint for prospective students in their research journey, but for many the digital experience doesn’t deliver. Prospective students are more likely to use the university site than any other site when looking for answers to specific questions, starting to research courses, researching university life, and developing a shortlist of universities to consider. However, across the 10 sites measured in the study, on average more than one in three deemed the effort required of them to complete tasks on the site was more than they had expected. So, prospective students are looking to university sites to help them make this huge decision but in many cases the sites are making things unnecessarily complicated and/ or difficult for them. What can they do to improve the digital experience?

channel used higher learning

One key consideration for universities is understanding what information is most important in terms of decision making, what are the things that they should be prioritising in order to convince prospective students to choose them? Apart from the obvious ‘reputation’, ‘having the best course for my needs’ is the leading reason to choose a university, followed closely by ‘courses that are easy to understand’. There are many facets to reputation, most of which are difficult to manipulate outside of the usual content on awards, accolades and student satisfaction statistics, and solid marketing and PR campaigns over time (see the University of Bradford, whose most recent marketing campaign as presented at the conference by their Director of External Affairs, has seen an increase in applications for this diverse university!). However, making courses engaging and easy to understand is something that University websites absolutely can control, and can change reasonably easily!

One in three prospective students in our study said they didn’t know exactly what course they wanted to study, but had a broad idea of interest areas, and one in ten didn’t even know that much by the time they started researching. Most UK university websites allow users to search by interest area, using keywords. However, the majority do not offer any more than the most basic filter options to aid prospective students in navigating the search results or tailoring what they are seeing to narrow down their options. So those 40% or more of prospective students must trawl through multiple courses looking for key information on the course details page in order to help them understand what might be best for them. From there, unfortunately for tech-savvy Gen-Z, it’s back to basics with a notepad and pen as most UK university websites don’t allow users to save courses to a list of favourites to revisit later. This experience is a laborious one, and in order to capture the attention of a generation that is used to having easily accessible information at their fingertips this needs to change.

This starts with the search functionality itself, for most prospective students this will be the very first thing they interact with on any university website. Existing functionality is basic across most UK university sites, allowing users to input keywords relating only to course study areas in order to bring up reams of results, or requires them to know the specific title of a course. But when we asked prospective students how they would prefer to begin a search for courses, four very different options are chosen in almost equal proportions; by specific course, by interest area, by study level (undergrad or postgrad), and by career interest. If I am a prospective student, and I want to be an archaeologist, but I don’t know what I need to study in order to achieve that, I may want to be able to search on the university’s course search to find this out. Having tested this on the top 5 universities in the UK, not one returns any course search results to help me with my query, some don’t even use predictive search, and more shockingly a couple don’t prioritise course search as an option. Based on a similar study we run in Australia, which features over 30 universities, we have seen the positive effect that more sophisticated search functionality can have on conversion. For example, the University of South Australia utilise a multitude of search functionality to help their prospective students locate relevant courses in whichever way works best for them.

At UniSA prospective students can search by career, course or study area:

unisa search

Or if they need a helping hand getting started in their search, they can select from study area tiles:

unisa explore

And once they’ve got their search results, UniSA offer tonnes of helpful filters to help them navigate through all the available options:

unisa filters

Open Universities Australia provide a specialised tool on their website to help prospective students match a course to their needs:

oua help

Once a prospective student chooses a course that seems to meet their needs, the next most important factor is whether it is easy to understand information about the course. Based on the recent UK study conducted by Global Reviews, the most important information prospective students want to see on the course detail page is an overview of the course and what it entails, the degree structure including electives, available courses based on entry requirements, study hours and assessments, and learning outcomes. Our higher education Client Advisory experts have also conducted specific studies around the presentation of information on course detail pages, information architecture, and labelling. Many UK university websites do provide all of the desired information on the course detail pages, but fail to communicate it in a way that prospective students with no experience of university will understand, use so much block text that it is impossible to scan the page to find the relevant information they are looking for, and often use labelling that does not clearly indicate what information might be hidden within a collapsed section.

Edith Cowan University (ECU) in Australia allows users to jump to different sections of the course details page using a main horizontal navigation, and clear labelling. Clear CTAs for applying and enquiring also feature in this navigation bar, and the bar is sticky so scrolls down the page with the user. Further down the page a more detailed vertical navigation also exists to help users navigate within the main body of the page. ECU are also trialling compare and save functionality from the course detail page, and many other Australian universities provide this already, including Deakin and UniSA, enabling prospective students to compile a shortlist on their site (no old school notebook and a pen required here!). Language is straightforward and accessible, and content delivers against all the most important information prospective students have said they want on the page.

ecu degree

ECU provides in depth information about learning outcomes, course structure (including a table showing each unit of the course across all four years and the credit points for each), detailed information about work placements (including specific attendance requirements), and also gives a long list of potential careers that a prospective student might achieve as a result of studying this course. This comprehensive content is presented in ‘chunked up’ sections, making good use of font size, colour, bolding, shading, tables and more to ensure that the page is easily scannable, and the information is clearly displayed. Despite the language on the page being very user friendly and accessible, ECU recognise that there may still be some terms that need further explanation in order to help prospective students understand the course and what it can offer them, so they provide a ‘Quick guide to uni-speak’ that provides further detail.

ecu guide

ECU have put their prospective students at the centre of this experience, by understanding at each point what it is that the user might want to do next and then delivering tools and/ or content to help them do that. Any prospective student reading this course detail page would likely come away with an in depth understanding of the course, but also of why they should choose ECU, as there are multiple ‘reasons to choose’ presented within the content and a dedicated link-through section to the ‘why choose us’ page. For any prospective students who find that, even with all this easily consumed content, they still need more information, the CTA to enquire is present throughout their digital journey on the page. ECU really get it right!

Conversely, many UK university course detail pages feature one thing only, lots and lots of block text. Many don’t use a single table, image, or call out box, and much of the content includes jargon that prospective students may not understand, with no offer of explanation. Any prospective student visiting these pages is going to have to work much harder to understand the course options than they would at ECU or any number of other Australian universities. Why is the UK so far behind in terms of digital experience? Why are UK universities not prioritising this as something to develop, and fast, when they are trying to attract the most tech-savvy generation of school leavers in history, at a time when student numbers are falling? This absolutely needs to change.


If you’d like to find out more about how your university’s digital experience can be optimised to improve conversion, contact us by phone or email:

Neil WhiteAlex Hughes
Commercial DirectorCommercial Director
+44 (0) 203 405 9331 +44 (0) 203 405 9332
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