Universities are spending millions on redesigns and maintenance of websites which students say are inadequate and lack basic services, the Telegraph can disclose.
The cost of the website redesigns and maintenance (including salaries and other external spending) ranges widely depending on the university.
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.
The average annual spending on the maintenance of a university website is £60,375. That figure excludes additional spending on one-off redesigns, for which the average spending is £60,882.
The most expensive university website is the University of Hertfordshire's, which spent £278,094 on a redesign by Precedent Communications and Straker UK, completed in May 2008. The university also employs staff whose salaries cost £221,500 every year, in addition to £14,500 each year for software support.
The University of Hertfordshire said "staff costs are not only attributed to those working solely on the website. They take into account the cost of a team of software developers who manage a range of internal and external online services".
The next most expensive redesign was by Cranfield University, which spent £243,310.
A spokesperson for Cranfield University said 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. They said, "The figure quoted relates to not only this redesign but also an investment in both the hardware and software that supports the website".
The Robert Gordon University spent £232,511 on its most recent redesign.
A spokesperson for Robert Gordon said: "The investment in our web site was far more than simply a redesign exercise and was required to ensure our web presence remains responsive to user expectations and requirements. Our web presence is a critical part of our marketing and communications mix and contributes to our ability to recruit a diverse student community, including a significant number of international students."
The annual cost of maintaining university websites also varies dramatically.
Exeter University spends £378,000 each year on salaries for 11 staff who design, develop and maintain the central corporate areas of the website and provide web support to academic units. That's the equivalent of £23 from every one of Exeter's 16,195 students every year.
Exeter University says the relative high cost of their team is due to the University's internal structure. A spokesperson for the University said: "in many other institutions this activity, and the funding required for members of staff to undertake it, is distributed across the institution rather than centralised".
The problem is that the quality of university website has little correlation with its cost.
Many universities choose to emphasise promotional materials on their homepage while failing to offer basic services for students (a behaviour that has been recognised before).
A survey of 542 students by Webcredible in August showed that a quarter of students would like to choose course units online, basic functionality which is missing from most university websites.
Another survey of 1000 students by Transversal established that 95 percent of students use university websites, but only 38 percent agreed that university websites answer their questions, with 47 percent rating their quality as poor or average.
A third survey by Times Higher Education recorded the subjective experiences of sixth form pupils at three schools who were asked to rate every university website in the country.
The survey split university websites into three categories -- well performing, average performing and badly performing -- based on five principles including accessibility, contact information, the availability of good feedback from students, the uniqueness of the website and the quality of insight into the campus experience.
Nine out of the top 10 most expensive website redesigns were deemed to have average performing websites: only Imperial College London, which spent £141,000 on a website redesign in 2007, was shown to have a well performing site.
Comparing spending information with the Times Higher Education survey suggests that some universities may be under-investing in their websites.
For example, the University of Wolverhampton was ranked third worst by the students. Its annual budget is £35,000, half the average annual spending for all university websites.
The University of Worcester, which was ranked the second worst website in the Times Higher Education survey, spends only £8,701.24 a year on website maintenance, not including staff costs.
REDESIGN COSTS TOP 7
University of Hertfordshire - £278,094 (completed May 2008)
Cranfield University - £243,310
Robert Gordon University - £232,551
London Business School - £175,000 (completed 2009)
University of Wales - £156,226 (completed October 2009)
Imperial College London - £141,000 (completed 2007)
University of Leeds - £112,691
(These seven universities collectively spent more than the next 34 most expensive website redesigns.)
AVERAGE SPENDING ON WEBSITE REDESIGNS
£60,882 (mean), £28,725 (median)
ANNUAL SPENDING TOP 7 (Including staff salaries)
University of Exeter - £378,000 (11 staff with other duties)
Cardiff University - £240,868
University College London - £239,185
University of Hertfordshire - £236,000
University of Surrey - £217,564
Oxford Brookes University - £203,000 (staff have other duties)
Aberystwyth University - £187,000
NUMBER OF REDESIGNS IN LAST 10 YEARS (from 84 universities)
TOTAL EXTERNAL SPENDING ON WEBSITE REDESIGNS (from 42 universities):
Article by Conrad Quilty-Harper, Data Mapping Reporter on Telegraph.
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