Content Strategy

The state of Higher Education digital environments

Robert Mills • 3 minutes

Outdated content, bloated websites, inconsistency between formats and channels, these are all bleak but common descriptions of higher education websites. Nobody sets out to create a digital environment that’s overcrowded, undermining the brand, or generally beyond control.

Yet this can be a situation quickly reached with decentralised publishing models, subject matter experts having different writing styles, stakeholders with conflicting priorities and agendas, and countless silos.

What does this actually look like in real life though? What impact does this have on digital environments and are there any patterns across the higher education sector?

We partnered with eQAfy to analyse the state of higher education digital environments.

How big is the content problem?

It may be useful to think of university digital environments as estates, made up of buildings (content containers) on- and off-campus.

On-campus content is managed through content management systems (CMS) over which universities have a high-degree of control and through which they manage websites, sub-sites and microsites.

Social media, blogging, learning management, podcast and other content platforms handle off-campus content.

The on-campus content containers (websites/microsites) comprise hundreds or even thousands of pages containing, and linking to, various forms of content. These are the rooms within the buildings.

Our analogy can be stretched to off-campus content, where dozens or hundreds of accounts on content platforms hold even more institutional content. Perhaps more akin to the franchise boutiques one encounters in large department stores?

Typical university digital environment

The following figure may help to piece together higher education’s complex digital content environment:


Typical university digital environment

The left-hand side represents a main higher education website, its attendant sub-sites and microsites. Each of the websites has embedded on-page content and links to other content types (for example, PDF documents). The right-hand side represents the types of ‘off-campus’ content (for example, videos, images, audio files) that may link back to pages on the main website or other sub-sites/microsites or simply exist solely on its own platform.

“On-campus” Content

The first measure of how much content higher education institutions create and store is to estimate the total number of web pages across all of a university’s websites.

We collected page count estimates for 156 UK and 160 US universities. The largest UK university site has 1,900,000 pages; the largest US has 8,500,000.

Extremes are fun. But, grasping the scale of the content problem is easier if we look at the distribution of the estimated size of university web estates.

For the UK, a quarter of university web estates have between 100,000 and 500,000 pages: way too many to keep them all relevant and up-to-date. For US universities, 20% of web estates had between 500,000 and 1,000,000 pages.


Figure 3: Histogram of the estimated number of web pages for US universities

To make content management and oversight more complicated the hundreds of thousands of web pages at higher education institutions are spread (unevenly) over hundreds of sub-sites, each with its own content management system or content editors.

Between the large numbers of individual sites and pages, it’s hard to conclude that any digital manager can be on top of the content or that it is accessible and error-free.

Download the full report for additional data around:

  • The number of occurrences, per 1,000 web pages, of embedded web page content for US and UK universities
  • The number of links, per 1,000 web pages, of spreadsheet, presentation, document and PDF files for US and UK universities
  • The number of videos uploaded to UK and US university official YouTube accounts
  • The goals digital university teams have over the next 12 months
  • Plus additional insights and analysis

We also have some really insightful webinars world produced to help improve ContentOps processes in higher ed:

Report 👉 The state of Higher Education digital environments.

About the Author

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent

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