University and college websites are struggling to learn the lessons of writing in plain English

Evelyn Wolf
3 min read
Plain Language in University

In its largest ever study, VisibleThread identifies that 99% of university and college websites do not meet target readability standards.

Cambridge UK, Monday 9th November 2016. VisibleThread, a global leader in content quality management, has released the results of its largest ever clear language study of 415 University and College websites in 6 countries.

There is a growing global movement for all website content to be clear, concise and relevant. For example, in the UK, the government’s Digital Service, issued its mandatory content design: planning, writing and managing content guidelines. In the USA, the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) supports the use of clear communication in government writing. In Australia, the Office of Parliamentary Counsel has similar goals as does the Government of Canada.

VisibleThread analyzed up to 100 pages on each of the 415 websites for the following key metrics:

  • Readability – How readable is the content?
  • Passive Language – Active Language communicates clearly. What proportion of sentences is passive?
  • Long Sentences – What proportion of all sentences are too long?
  • Word Complexity Density – How many complex, hard-to-understand words does the content contain?

The key findings are as follows:

  • Over 99% of University and College websites failed to achieve the target readability score of 60.
  • Only 23 out of the 415 Universities and Colleges analyzed (5.5%) met the target passive language score of 4%
  • Long sentences abound on University and College websites. On some websites over 40% of the sentences contained more than 25 words. None of the websites analyzed met the target score of 5%.
  • The sentence complexity measure varied greatly between websites. More encouragingly, 63 out of the 415 University and College websites (15.2%) actually met or exceeded the target score.

Teacher’s Pets and Bottom of the class

The southern hemisphere seemed to outperform the northern hemisphere in this study. Kaplan Business School (Australia) topped the 2016 Educational rankings in this study.  It scored moderately well in Readability. However, it ranked highly in complexity and passive voice although it was let down somewhat by its use of long sentences.

The National Tertiary Education scored just below the target readability score and performed extremely well for its avoidance of complex language. However, it was let down somewhat by its use of the passive voice and the number of long sentences.

Unfortunately, the University of Aberdeen (UK) website fell well below VisibleThread’s target scores in all categories. Amazingly, 39% of all sentences encountered contained more than 25 words. It was also near the bottom for the use of complex sentences. Its readability score was also in the bottom third. These factors combined negatively affected its overall clear writing score.

Similarly, the University of South Australia (Australia) fared poorly in its use of complex sentences. While its use of long sentences was marginally better, its use of active voice ensured that it did not hit the very bottom.

The top 5 Universities and Colleges were:

  1. Kaplan Business School (Australia)
  2. National Tertiary Education (New Zealand)
  3. University of Tennessee Knoxville (USA)
  4. Box Hill Institute (Australia)
  5. Avondale College (Australia)

The bottom 5 Universities and Colleges were:

  1. Northumbria University (United Kingdom)
  2.  Lancaster University (United Kingdom)
  3.  Lincoln University (United Kingdom)
  4.  University of South Australia (Australia)
  5.  University of Aberdeen (United Kingdom)

 “This analysis clearly shows that Universities and Colleges have a lot of work to do to deliver clear, readable and understandable websites,” said Fergal McGovern, CEO of Visible Thread. “With the exception of a few noteworthy establishments, University and College websites continue to confuse visitors, reduce their attractiveness to potential students and, above all, fail to educate.”

The cost benefits that can be realized achieved by improving website clarity, allowing students to understand messages and to complete error-free operations online, are considerable.  Students and other website visitors no longer need to use other means of communication, such as telephone calls or face-to-face visits, to clarify information. The fact that such a tiny percentage of University and College websites have successfully implemented clear writing guidelines is disappointing. However, Visible Thread’s analysis shows that, in many cases, efforts are required in only one or two of the four key areas to deliver a massive improvement in overall readability.

The full report can be found here:


About VisibleThread

VisibleThread helps executives in large organizations govern content quality with less cost and risk. Communications, marketing and sales teams in diverse industries use our technology to improve many functions, including proposal development, contract review, and brand audits. Our software finds brand compliance, poor readability, and other issues in websites and documents. Unlike consumer-grade analysis tools, VisibleThread processes hundreds of documents and web pages in minutes. Fuelled with greater insights, customers reduce costs and automate manual processes across their organizations. For more information, visit


Book a Demo