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Regulations that require plain language in Higher Ed

Regulations that require plain language in Higher Ed

7 minute read

Regulations that require plain language in Higher Ed

7 minute read

Regulations that require plain language in Higher Ed

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

Plain language is an important area for all organisations to be paying attention to in their content, and it’s an area with a lot of research behind it.

George Orwell criticises the use of verbose language in his famous essay on Politics and The English Language. He says:

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble”

He also said:

“Never use a long word where a short one will do.”

In this article, we’ll cover:

  1. What plain language is and why it is so important
  2. Some of our plain language resources
  3. Higher ed regulations that require you to use plain language in content

What is plain language and why is important?

High stakes content - particularly things like contracts, terms and conditions and policy documents - don't need to be long, dense and opaque with excessive legalese and jargon. And it shouldn’t be when you’re talking to students. But what do we mean when we talk about plain language? It sounds obvious, but it’s not always. Simple doesn't necessarily mean it's easy. Writing in plain language is about:

  • Replacing complex terms or legalese with more common terms. Eliminating unnecessary content and writing for your reader. Summarising and condensing complex information into language with no jargon, unnecessary acronyms or technical language. It's about being human with your content and writing how people speak.

  • Defining or explaining the necessary legal or complex terms. There are plenty of cases where you will have to use words that are specialised or more complex, and that's okay. Just make sure you either define or explain the term, depending on the content.

  • Using design, structure and format to make information easy to digest. According to research 79 percent of users skim and scan new documents. So you need to use things like short sentences, descriptive headings, bullets and bold to effectively break up walls of text, putting information in a logical order, sticking to one topic per paragraph and using an inverted pyramid structure (having the most important content at the start).

  • Making it easy for the reader to understand and make informed decisions. Everybody has a right to understand information, and universities and colleges need to make sure students have access to high-quality, accurate information at every stage of their journey. We'll talk about the student as a consumer a little later in this article.

Plain language is important because you need to communicate your messages clearly and effectively with customers. They need to quickly understand the main points of what they are reading and manage expectations, and they shouldn’t be put off by length or complexity. Harvard University give some great guidance on using plain language, such as “front-loading” content and using an active voice.

Aside from regulations requiring plain language which we'll discuss later, as research from Nielsen Norman Group shows, good communication has strong business value. Organisations with clear writing styles are perceived to possess greater transparency and credibility than companies that don’t. Plain language removes barriers between you and your readers. It sets your organisation apart from the competition, resulting in increased conversions and loyalty.

Plain language resources: some of our webinars

Writing in plain language and condensing complex information into simpler terms is not about dumbing down, it’s about opening up and making content more accessible. We’ve got lots of on-demand webinars on this, particularly ones for higher education audiences. Here are just a few if you need introducing to the topic:

Regulations that require plain language in higher ed

Now we’ll go through some regulations relevant to higher education organisations that require plain language. There are a lot of regulations to that institutions must be compliant with (although, ironically, some of these are long, dense and not always in plain language) but we’ll keep it brief.

This isn't an exhaustive list and there’s likely to be a lot more regulations that require plain language in the coming years too, particularly with digital transformation and the coronavirus changing the way organisations deliver and people consume information online.

Plain Writing Act 2010 (US)

This became law when President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which means that federal agencies need to use clear communication that the public can understand and use.

The government has given lots of advice on following the regulation. Their website talks about the benefits of plain language - people don't want to spend time "translating" information they read. People want to get information and get out. Plain language writing saves time and money, making life easier for the public.

They also give guidance on following the regulation, which is broken down into clear sections:

We mentioned Deborah Bosley's webinar on clarity in higher education at the start of this article. It's important for non-marketing documents like university policies and procedures, and complaints processes to be accessible to students so they have a fair chance of understanding the information and using it to make informed decisions.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

In the UK, new regulations mean all public sector websites and apps must now be up the standards of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1 level AA), and publish accessibility statements on their websites. Find out more about this and deadlines on the UK government website.

Content written in plain language benefits all users, including people with cognitive disabilities, low reading literacy, or if somebody is encountering an unknown topic or language. Plain language is a key part of the WCAG. It says in section 3.1 that content must be:

“Readable: Make text content readable and understandable."

Examples are then given to include things like:

  • Headings and field labels. These should organise content in a descriptive way that supports readers.
  • Unusual words and abbreviations. If these crop up that the audience may not know, they must be explained and expanded on.
  • Reading level. The vast majority of web content must score between 7 and 9 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) readability test, or have extra content explaining it in simpler terms.

Test the readability of your content using Hemingway App, Readable.io, or a similar tool.

Consumer Rights Act (UK)

Students are classed as consumers now, and particularly in the UK there’s been an increase in institutions being warned about breaches of consumer law within higher education. But what does the Consumer Market Authority mean for content people in higher education?

Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 in the UK, students are your consumers from pre-university all the way through to graduation. All written terms of a consumer contract (including things like course description content before students choose a university) must be:

  • Transparent and expressed in plain and intelligible language and (in the case of a written term) is legible.
  • Prominent. New terms are brought to the consumer’s attention in such a way that an average consumer would be aware of the term.

The Competition and Markets Authority have published guidance for colleges and universities on following consumer law. We have also written an article on making sure your content is compliant in higher education.

Consumer codes (EU)

Consumer codes in the EU are also relevant to higher ed audiences, and these are similar to UK consumer laws. The government has provided guidance on presenting information, which although very detailed is itself in very good plain language. Key points say that consumer information must:

  • Be in plain and intelligible with grammatically clear language - allowing the consumer to acquire actual knowledge of all the contract terms.

  • Provide information that is most relevant for consumers at different stages of the purchase in a clear and comprehensible manner.

  • Adapt the design of information to different means of communication, so that mandatory information is easy to find and readable irrespective of the device used (desktop, mobile) for initiating or completing the purchase.

  • Use a layered approach to improve accessibility and understanding of information for different mobile devices. Further information should be provided via headings with hyperlinks or expanded menus, or features including symbols that, when clicked, reveal information boxes etc.

  • Use a legible font size with appropriate contrast and colour of the font and the background.

  • Highlight important terms, or put them up front, to attract consumers’ attention, for example, those imposing obligations, setting deadlines or excluding or limiting rights.

  • Use simple and plain language, also when explaining complex issues, without prejudice to maintaining legal accuracy. For example, use short sentences. Avoid using passive voice. Define key or complicated terms or provide hyperlinks to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) or other documents that provide meaningful explanations.

  • Use tables, or similar tools, for listing many information items, such as a breakdown of delivery costs per weight or delivery areas, etc. Use numbers or visuals or other ways to explain procedures concerning deliveries, returns, complaint handling, customer service, and other practicalities.

  • Be creative when providing information, for example, use symbols and visuals where possible.

GDPR and new privacy laws in California

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which applies to EU and UK institutions - but also frequently other countries if you have students from these place -  privacy statements and any communication to the data subject relating to processing to the data must be:

  • concise
  • transparent
  • intelligible
  • in an easily accessible form
  • using clear and plain language, in particular for any information addressed specifically to a child.

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) came into effect in January 2020, giving residents unprecedented rights to control what information companies collect on them and how it is used. That said, the California attorney general’s office will not take any enforcement action against companies that do not comply until July 2020.

Plain language is a crucial part of content creation

Compliance with these regulations should just be a starting point - you should aim for a culture of plain language in your content teams, to produce high-quality content consistently, that always ties back to the user and organisational needs. Check out our web content standards checklist of key things to include when reviewing content for quality and compliance. You can use it to do a final check for content standards before publishing.

With GatherContent, you can include plain language guidance in templates and style guides embedded in your editing environment. Visit our higher education industry page to see what GatherContent can do for higher ed organisations. And find out how GatherContent can help you with compliance, quality and productivity in content planning and creation.

Plain language is an important area for all organisations to be paying attention to in their content, and it’s an area with a lot of research behind it.

George Orwell criticises the use of verbose language in his famous essay on Politics and The English Language. He says:

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble”

He also said:

“Never use a long word where a short one will do.”

In this article, we’ll cover:

  1. What plain language is and why it is so important
  2. Some of our plain language resources
  3. Higher ed regulations that require you to use plain language in content

What is plain language and why is important?

High stakes content - particularly things like contracts, terms and conditions and policy documents - don't need to be long, dense and opaque with excessive legalese and jargon. And it shouldn’t be when you’re talking to students. But what do we mean when we talk about plain language? It sounds obvious, but it’s not always. Simple doesn't necessarily mean it's easy. Writing in plain language is about:

  • Replacing complex terms or legalese with more common terms. Eliminating unnecessary content and writing for your reader. Summarising and condensing complex information into language with no jargon, unnecessary acronyms or technical language. It's about being human with your content and writing how people speak.

  • Defining or explaining the necessary legal or complex terms. There are plenty of cases where you will have to use words that are specialised or more complex, and that's okay. Just make sure you either define or explain the term, depending on the content.

  • Using design, structure and format to make information easy to digest. According to research 79 percent of users skim and scan new documents. So you need to use things like short sentences, descriptive headings, bullets and bold to effectively break up walls of text, putting information in a logical order, sticking to one topic per paragraph and using an inverted pyramid structure (having the most important content at the start).

  • Making it easy for the reader to understand and make informed decisions. Everybody has a right to understand information, and universities and colleges need to make sure students have access to high-quality, accurate information at every stage of their journey. We'll talk about the student as a consumer a little later in this article.

Plain language is important because you need to communicate your messages clearly and effectively with customers. They need to quickly understand the main points of what they are reading and manage expectations, and they shouldn’t be put off by length or complexity. Harvard University give some great guidance on using plain language, such as “front-loading” content and using an active voice.

Aside from regulations requiring plain language which we'll discuss later, as research from Nielsen Norman Group shows, good communication has strong business value. Organisations with clear writing styles are perceived to possess greater transparency and credibility than companies that don’t. Plain language removes barriers between you and your readers. It sets your organisation apart from the competition, resulting in increased conversions and loyalty.

Plain language resources: some of our webinars

Writing in plain language and condensing complex information into simpler terms is not about dumbing down, it’s about opening up and making content more accessible. We’ve got lots of on-demand webinars on this, particularly ones for higher education audiences. Here are just a few if you need introducing to the topic:

Regulations that require plain language in higher ed

Now we’ll go through some regulations relevant to higher education organisations that require plain language. There are a lot of regulations to that institutions must be compliant with (although, ironically, some of these are long, dense and not always in plain language) but we’ll keep it brief.

This isn't an exhaustive list and there’s likely to be a lot more regulations that require plain language in the coming years too, particularly with digital transformation and the coronavirus changing the way organisations deliver and people consume information online.

Plain Writing Act 2010 (US)

This became law when President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which means that federal agencies need to use clear communication that the public can understand and use.

The government has given lots of advice on following the regulation. Their website talks about the benefits of plain language - people don't want to spend time "translating" information they read. People want to get information and get out. Plain language writing saves time and money, making life easier for the public.

They also give guidance on following the regulation, which is broken down into clear sections:

We mentioned Deborah Bosley's webinar on clarity in higher education at the start of this article. It's important for non-marketing documents like university policies and procedures, and complaints processes to be accessible to students so they have a fair chance of understanding the information and using it to make informed decisions.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

In the UK, new regulations mean all public sector websites and apps must now be up the standards of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1 level AA), and publish accessibility statements on their websites. Find out more about this and deadlines on the UK government website.

Content written in plain language benefits all users, including people with cognitive disabilities, low reading literacy, or if somebody is encountering an unknown topic or language. Plain language is a key part of the WCAG. It says in section 3.1 that content must be:

“Readable: Make text content readable and understandable."

Examples are then given to include things like:

  • Headings and field labels. These should organise content in a descriptive way that supports readers.
  • Unusual words and abbreviations. If these crop up that the audience may not know, they must be explained and expanded on.
  • Reading level. The vast majority of web content must score between 7 and 9 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) readability test, or have extra content explaining it in simpler terms.

Test the readability of your content using Hemingway App, Readable.io, or a similar tool.

Consumer Rights Act (UK)

Students are classed as consumers now, and particularly in the UK there’s been an increase in institutions being warned about breaches of consumer law within higher education. But what does the Consumer Market Authority mean for content people in higher education?

Under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 in the UK, students are your consumers from pre-university all the way through to graduation. All written terms of a consumer contract (including things like course description content before students choose a university) must be:

  • Transparent and expressed in plain and intelligible language and (in the case of a written term) is legible.
  • Prominent. New terms are brought to the consumer’s attention in such a way that an average consumer would be aware of the term.

The Competition and Markets Authority have published guidance for colleges and universities on following consumer law. We have also written an article on making sure your content is compliant in higher education.

Consumer codes (EU)

Consumer codes in the EU are also relevant to higher ed audiences, and these are similar to UK consumer laws. The government has provided guidance on presenting information, which although very detailed is itself in very good plain language. Key points say that consumer information must:

  • Be in plain and intelligible with grammatically clear language - allowing the consumer to acquire actual knowledge of all the contract terms.

  • Provide information that is most relevant for consumers at different stages of the purchase in a clear and comprehensible manner.

  • Adapt the design of information to different means of communication, so that mandatory information is easy to find and readable irrespective of the device used (desktop, mobile) for initiating or completing the purchase.

  • Use a layered approach to improve accessibility and understanding of information for different mobile devices. Further information should be provided via headings with hyperlinks or expanded menus, or features including symbols that, when clicked, reveal information boxes etc.

  • Use a legible font size with appropriate contrast and colour of the font and the background.

  • Highlight important terms, or put them up front, to attract consumers’ attention, for example, those imposing obligations, setting deadlines or excluding or limiting rights.

  • Use simple and plain language, also when explaining complex issues, without prejudice to maintaining legal accuracy. For example, use short sentences. Avoid using passive voice. Define key or complicated terms or provide hyperlinks to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) or other documents that provide meaningful explanations.

  • Use tables, or similar tools, for listing many information items, such as a breakdown of delivery costs per weight or delivery areas, etc. Use numbers or visuals or other ways to explain procedures concerning deliveries, returns, complaint handling, customer service, and other practicalities.

  • Be creative when providing information, for example, use symbols and visuals where possible.

GDPR and new privacy laws in California

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which applies to EU and UK institutions - but also frequently other countries if you have students from these place -  privacy statements and any communication to the data subject relating to processing to the data must be:

  • concise
  • transparent
  • intelligible
  • in an easily accessible form
  • using clear and plain language, in particular for any information addressed specifically to a child.

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) came into effect in January 2020, giving residents unprecedented rights to control what information companies collect on them and how it is used. That said, the California attorney general’s office will not take any enforcement action against companies that do not comply until July 2020.

Plain language is a crucial part of content creation

Compliance with these regulations should just be a starting point - you should aim for a culture of plain language in your content teams, to produce high-quality content consistently, that always ties back to the user and organisational needs. Check out our web content standards checklist of key things to include when reviewing content for quality and compliance. You can use it to do a final check for content standards before publishing.

With GatherContent, you can include plain language guidance in templates and style guides embedded in your editing environment. Visit our higher education industry page to see what GatherContent can do for higher ed organisations. And find out how GatherContent can help you with compliance, quality and productivity in content planning and creation.

Webinar Recording

Clarity in Higher Education: Every written word represents your brand

Watch this webinar to learn how to create information about your university that is clear, concise, and credible. Including: how to create policies, disclosures, and other non-marketing content that is easy for students, faculty, or the public to understand.

June 4, 2020

4:00 pm

Register now

Webinar Recording

Clarity in Higher Education: Every written word represents your brand

Watch this webinar to learn how to create information about your university that is clear, concise, and credible. Including: how to create policies, disclosures, and other non-marketing content that is easy for students, faculty, or the public to understand.

June 4, 2020

4:00 pm

Watch now
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About the author

Paige Toomes

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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