University Web Sites Cost Money!

Did you know that the average spending on the maintenance of a University Web site is £60,375 (per annum)? This figure was announced by the press today. “Wow, that sounds cheap!” will be the response for those who know about the wide range of services provided across institutional Web sites, ranging from the important promotional and marketing aspects which are designed to attract new students and research income, disseminate information on the value of the work carried out within institutions to the public as well as support collaborative and communications activities within the institution and will partners across the UK and beyond.

But if, however, you read the headline “Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate” and spotted that this was published in the Daily Telegraph you will realise that a different spin has been given, with the article seeking to demonstrate inefficiencies in higher education in order to justify cuts.

This is clearly an article which has been written with a political agenda. But is also also true to say that it is not unexpected – indeed at the Mashed Library event in Liverpool a few month’s ago I mentioned to Tony Hirst that we should expect to see right-wing papers seeking to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) in order to gather information which can be used against the sector. And this has come to pass with the article announcing:

Using Freedom of Information legislation the Telegraph discovered eight examples of universities spending between £100,000 and £280,000 on one-off website redesigns, as much as five times higher than the average spending.

Of course a one-off Web site redesign will increase the annual expenditure; as pointed out by a spokesperson for Cranfield University “this was the University’s only major redesign of the website over the past 15 years and that the large one-off investment saved money in the longer run“. Indeed a failure to invest in a Web site redesign could lead a University open to criticisms for failing to respond to user needs for enhanced functionality; richer content; simpler interfaces and the range of other requirements which those involved in Web site management will be well-aware.

The Daily Telegraph article was published a few days after I facilitated a one-day workshop session on “Institutional Web Services: Evidence for Their Value” which was hosted at the University of Strathclyde. In the introduction I described how the workshop was part of a JISC-funded activity led by UKOLN which was seeking to develop “ways of gathering evidence which can demonstrate the impact of services and devise appropriate metrics to support such work“.The launch workshop explored questions of “How can we demonstrate the effectiveness and impact of institutional Web services? What metrics are relevant? What concerns may there be?

We are now seeing that a failure to gather evidence will leave Universities open to charges of inefficiencies. As I am currently attending the CETIS 2010 conference I haven’t the time to write any more on this topic. But I would welcome suggestions on how those involved in providing institutional Web site can demonstrate the value of the services they provide. Over to you.


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13 Comments

  1. when you say

    This is clearly an article which has been written with a political agenda

    you were, of course, referring to your own article weren’t you?

    I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t recognize the truth that is so eloquently summed up here:
    http://xkcd.com/773/
    (yep, we’d all seen it long before the DT picked it up).

    If you don’t recognize it, I must caution you that your head is deep in the sand. That might spare you the anxiety of the sight of the axe man approaching, but it will hardly aid you in avoiding the cut.

    Reply
  2. There are 3 aspects to the article and it would probably make sense to consider them separately (irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the specific article): 1) the costs of institutional website redesigns; 2) the annual running costs of institutional websites; and 3) the attitudes of (prospective) students to those websites.

    I presume that the figures quoted in 1) are based on the costs of outsourcing design to external consultants (or, at least, I can’t understand how any other figure could be arrived at). If so, then some of the quoted figures do seem to be pretty high?

    The figures quoted under 2) are clearly nonsense. If anyone believes that Oxford spends £8,000 per year on its website whereas Exeter spends £379,000 then they clearly need their head examining. If nothing else, then these figures call the whole article severely into question and would certainly cause me to question the figures in 1).

    I can’t comment on the assertion that students (or prospective students) are unsatisfied with the university websites they have to use.

    As discussed at IWMW, I would expect institutions to have some reasonable evidence at their disposal about:

    a) the costs associated with their websites (which might usefully be split central vs. distributed, design/development vs. editorial, people vs. hardware, ongoing vs. one-off redesigns, staff vs consultants, and/or in other ways)

    b) the role that the website plays in recruitment, particularly of students (which is essentially about justifying the costs of the website against its benefits)

    c) the levels of satisfaction by prospective students/current students/staff/alumni/others around the usability/usefulness of the website

    I can’t see any alternative that the information associated with a) and b) is gathered in-house by each university. c) could be done nationally I suppose – UCAS could do it for example – though, in the current climate I can’t really see who would fund such a thing? HEFCE and the NUS perhaps? On that basis, c) probably needs to be done in house as well. In general, I assume this information is already being gathered in-house in some form.

    Of course, whether institutions choose to share any of this knowledge with outside parties is another matter.

    I think that the media will have to do significantly better than this article to be a real threat to university web teams. That said, the less that such teams have the above kind of information to hand, the more threatened they will probably feel.

    Reply
  3. Gathering evidence – of the kind you asked for earlier – may help people make better decisions, and even present a united front, but it seems unlikely it will change the news story.

    I mean, there’s that whole climate change thing where evidence seems… less persuasive then we might expect.

    Reply
  4. @Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner

    Lol – thanks, I’d forgotten that :-)

    Good grief… imagine how much Exeter would have to spend annually to include everything in the right-hand circle as well 😉

    Reply
    • Ouch.

      By the way, you do know that xkcd.com cartoon is nonsense, don’t you?

      Reply
  5. I wonder how much the Daily Telegraph spends on its website?

    Reply
  6. All debates about this article, for and against, are entirely irrelevant when you look at these simple facts about the original article:-
    1) The model for comparison was a just and accurate one
    2) The maths in the model was also fine
    3) The data was incompletely supplied; many Universities have seemingly not responded
    4) The data supplied is massively varied with a number of outliers.

    Regarding points 3 and 4:
    Re: 3 – claims like ‘The most expensive website is’ can only be made with a complete data set. Unfair/sensational. The Telegraph appears to have become The Sun.
    Re: 4 – If the author had asked supermarkets how much an apple is, and some responses came back as 10p and some as £10, he surely would have questioned his data and qualified it more. The Sun becomes The Star.

    Two final points:
    1) The article figures cost of website to each student (cost per student). If all of the figures of running costs for University websites supplied were reviewed with what percentage of the time/money/staffing goes to maintaining student-only content (recruitment, support, etc), the figure in most cases would be massively less. ‘If a University website costs X then X must be paid for by students’. This just isn’t how it works.
    2) In economics and business there is something called ROI or Return On Investment. It helps answer the question ‘If we put X pounds into a website, how many pounds do we make or how many do we save because of that cost and work?’. A £100k per annum website that is the primary International source of information and lead generation for business, recruitment or International esteem for a University is general significantly more valuable than £100k not spent on a website.

    I find this whole article in the Telegraph distasteful, ignorant and sensationalist. Which leads me to reconsider my final point (2) in relation to the Telegraph; of course they know about Return on Investment. The page views on the article in question must have raked in the advertising revenue today. Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster, anyone?

    Reply
  7. Sorry to dominate comments, but I read that the author of the Telegraph article would be responding to this article and hopefully some points raised by the comments.
    So, to the author of the Telegraph article – it says in your highly detailed piece of investigative journalism that the Bristol University website costs £1500 a year to run. That means the salary of all of the people featured on this page comes to a total of £1500, less any server hosting and software licensing?

    http://www.bristol.ac.uk/public-relations/web-newmedia/

    Ridiculous.

    Reply
  8. Of course, as marketing becomes more important under a “student demand” led system we would expect these figures to rise sharply. Marketing will be essential to the continued existence of each institution, more important tgan academic salaries and libraries.

    Reply
  9. The cost of running a university needs to be put in context. To pick a few:

    1. % of uni turnover.
    2. Cost per visitor rather than student, as uni sites are now the world’s view of the uni.
    3. ROI Print cost and administration savings e.g. from online prospectuses, staff portal rather than print bulletins etc.
    4. Conversion rates for prospective students, especially international students.
    5. Aiding the dissemination of research.

    Also, what constitutes a uni website these days? Corporate systems such as student/course info, HR, research repository, library catalogue typically have a web interface. And then there’s the VLE …

    I agree with Wendell that it will be very difficult to change the news story now that the attention grabbing headline is out. Should we be lobbying VCs & DIS rather than picking a fight with journalists? Perhaps we could find a champion in a more progressive paper? Guardian Technology springs to mind.

    Reply
  10. I think everyone needs to do what Ranjit Sidhu recommended at IWMW and show that online systems are much cheaper than paper-based ones. And also show that redesign is not just about making sites looking pretty, but improving usability and findability of information (e.g. moving away from information silos); and redevelopment (e.g. migrating to a CMS) is about improving the systems so that information can be updated more easily, which makes information on websites more accurate.

    Reply
  11. Just out of interest… did the author of the original article ever get back to you, as I think he promised on Twitter?

    Reply

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