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ERROR, COURSE NOT FOUND: How to ensure your University’s website is clearing-ready

Ola Andersson, Client Account Manager at Zengenti, creators of Contensis

Back in 2011, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) website crashed at the most pivotal moment as students frantically searched for places in Clearing.

Fast forward to 2020, and another cohort of students faced chaos as UCAS’ website crashed once again, due to experiencing seven times the normal amount of visitors logging in at one time.

The Clearing time period is crucial for prospective students, not to mention popular. Last year in 2022, a total of 33,280 students managed to secure their university places through Clearing alone.

For students who have missed out on their predicted grades, going through Clearing is the way to securing a route to university – and with time of the essence – students need uninterrupted access to key information about their prospective courses and relevant contact details to reach out to.

A smooth Clearing experience is equally vital for universities, who may risk detrimental financial impact if students can’t access their websites and they’re unsuccessful in filling course places as a consequence.

The solution lies in investing in the right tools ahead of time to ensure your university’s website is Clearing-ready – avoiding dreaded error messages flashing up on prospective students’ screens.

The rise in traffic

Over recent months, well-known companies have made national headlines when an influx of traffic has caused their websites to crash, the most recent being the overwhelming demand for the UK leg of Taylor Swift’s tour. When tickets went on sale in the US at the end of last year, service failures and delays led to the general sale being called off altogether, embroiling Ticketmaster in a PR disaster.

As one of the biggest days in the university calendar, Clearing could well be described as higher education’s equivalent of a Taylor Swift concert. Students will be competing for a limited amount of spaces, while universities compete to attract the best talent.

Working with over 20 higher education institutions’ online platforms across the UK and Europe, we know first-hand how important it is to effectively control Clearing traffic and ensure all pages remain online.

On results day in 2020, the traffic to the University of Hull‘s website increased by 180%, from 6,200 daily users to 17,466. Thanks to its dedicated server infrastructure, the website remained unphased by the influx of traffic – with the same result replicated across tens of other university sites.

What steps to take

Those wanting to duplicate such a seamless experience for their university can take some simple steps to ensure their website is prepared for this annual event, before leaving it in the hands of the experts.

In the same way that Clearing call handlers will know exactly where to find each bit of information when a prospective student rings, it’s important to be familiar with how your content management system (CMS) functions.

This doesn’t have to be laborious, but can simply involve being proactive to ensure your CMS is tailored to your institution’s demands, while maximising your information architecture (IA) – the process of organising and arranging information for user accessibility – for the ultimate user experience.

It is key to avoid being caught out by disjointed or inefficient systems that don’t have the necessary capabilities, nor teams with the experience of handling common challenges.

Before undertaking its digital transformation, the University of Hull’s site had 20,000 web pages, a clunky user experience, and a CMS that could not support its web development workflow. This forward-thinking university recognised an overhaul was needed.

Like the University of Hull, universities should look to scalable and modern technologies that allow for each part of its platform to grow as required to handle an increase in traffic on the day – and in the future.

University content teams should also ensure they have the ability to switch content quickly and easily using modelled content, to edit once and change everywhere, if information changes suddenly as spaces are filled.

Overseas visitors

Potentially at risk of being overlooked, university sites should also be prepared to handle significant volumes of traffic originating from overseas. Thousands of international students partake in Clearing each year, in the very same way as UK students.

In fact, in 2018, the number of EU students placed at UK universities through clearing was 30,350, while the non-EU student numbers sat at 38,330.

For those interested in the technical side, an optional content delivery network (CDN) allows for content to be cached in locations around the world to offer the lowest-latency possible for international students accessing the website from other countries – meaning real-time access with minimal or no delays.

The result is a coherent navigation journey for all students – crucial to settle nerves at an often stressful time.

Key site features

Keeping your website and content up and running may be the first priority, but creating an easy-to-navigate, reliable and informative site for prospective students should closely follow.

Canterbury Christ Church University has seen hundreds of new features rolled out in their 16 years of working with our team – all designed to adapt and fit to students’ expectations and staff’s needs, such as enhanced content control.

Visitors should be able to find and access content quickly and easily, so as to give a good first impression of the university, and its operations. A well designed, modern site, with clear navigation, search, IA and content labelling will help students find what they want, quickly – from any device.

While Clearing may be the big day universities are imminently focusing on, the ultimate goal is to ensure your website is fit for purpose – all year-round.

To find out more about Contensis, visit here.

By Ola Andersson, Client Account Manager at Zengenti, creators of Contensis

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