International students are of enormous importance to higher education institutions in the UK, and increasingly so. 22% of all first-year students starting in 2019 were from non-UK countries, an increase from 20% in just the previous intake year. Of these, China makes up the lion’s share and now accounts for 19% of all non-UK first-year students, a figure which itself increased by a fifth over the previous year1.
Communicating across continents with students was always challenging, but with international travel decimated by the pandemic, the onus is on technology more than ever to bridge that physical gap and allow large-scale, online events that all prospective students can access equally.
It will seem obvious to any regular user of the internet that page load speeds are important — nobody likes to sit around waiting for a slow page to load. What may be surprising, though, is quite how much impact those delays have on successful visitor journeys. A huge number of studies in page-loading performance have been done over the years, and the results are eye-opening.
For example, the likelihood that a potential website visitor will simply leave and browse somewhere else increases by a third once the wait time has gone from 1 second to just 3 seconds2, and by ten seconds, the likelihood has more than doubled3, and over half the users leave, possibly forever. Nearly 70% of consumers admit that page speed impacts their willingness to buy from an online retailer4.
Our senior staff at Union Spaces have decades of experience in building large-scale, commercial websites, and know all too well that it’s of vital importance that all pages load as quickly as possible. For this reason, we have made significant investment in the latest and fastest hardware, and spend considerable time testing and optimising every part of our platform to ensure that it loads as quickly as possible, and for users all over the world.
This last point is particularly important, as simply making a website load quickly in one country does not necessarily imply it will be the same across the globe, if at all. In China, for example, it’s well known that large parts of the internet are blocked by what’s known as the Great Firewall of China, and an enormous number of major media services such as Google, YouTube, Zoom, Vimeo, Facebook, Wikipedia, Netflix etc are blocked5.
What’s less well known is that much of the traffic that does get let through from abroad suffers significant slowdown, so that even if a website can claim that it’s accessible in China, it may be so slow as to be unusable.
This presents a huge technical challenge, as so much of the available infrastructure and software is either blocked or slowed down in China. To give you an idea of the scale of these slowdowns, we undertook testing recently to measure the impact of simply using freely available and enormously popular Google fonts on our test site. The delay, as measured from China, was 40 seconds for this one simple stylistic change. For reference, this compared with 0.2 seconds for the same font files that we hosted on our own servers.
Ignoring even the simple user dissatisfaction of slow websites as discussed earlier, platforms that host interactive video streams and text chat for live events are facing an almost impossible challenge if they want to access all countries across the world including China — even a Google-hosted font will make live interaction impossible, let alone relying on the standard video streaming products such as Zoom, YouTube or Vimeo that are blocked.
So, how do UK-based EdTech and events companies address these issues? Well, in many cases, they simply don’t. Often it’s far easier to concentrate on building the product to work effectively domestically and, despite the explosive growth in intake from China, it’s still often seen as a nut that’s too hard to crack.
At Union Spaces, we think very differently about this problem, and one of our core, founding beliefs is that our platform should work — and work well — in every country across the globe. And that most certainly includes China. We have chosen to partner only with companies with a proven track record of providing access into China, as well as building our own custom software solutions that ensure high performance globally.
Over the summer, we hosted a series of large-scale open days and offer holder events for one of our Russell Group clients, which regularly saw virtual audience numbers in the thousands. Attendance from non-UK potential students was regularly as high as 18%, and from up to 82 different countries in a single event. Not only did we see students from China present at these events, but could see them actively engaged — asking questions to the hosts of live video presentations who were able to reply in real-time… quite possibly ensuring another successful application.
This is not just the inevitable result of modern video conferencing software that’s available to all, but one of a concerted effort of strategy, investment, building and testing that we believe sets us apart from our competitors.
Page loading speed is vital, but it’s just the start. Our aim is to bring that level of easy, virtual access to students in every country across the globe, whatever the technical hurdles.
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Dan has been designing digital products since the early days of the Web in the late 90s. He has led the design teams at the Financial Times and the Daily Mail as well as at companies ranging from online estate agencies to major charities. He has designed numerous award-winning websites and apps for phones, tablets, TVs, watches and cars.