Is the prospectus dead?
I’d like to take you back to 1997. I’m at college. I’m 17. A year previous I had decided I wanted to become the first member of my family to go to university. So, time comes round to start looking for universities. Now, there’s a few things to bear in mind at this point:
- We owned a computer at home but it was purely a word processor. We had no internet connection and I had only seen this thing called the internet in action a couple of times. We used floppy disks.
- I didn’t have an email account.
- The word ‘tweet’ referred to the noise a bird makes. The word ‘blog’ would be considered nothing more than a mistaken drunken slur. If someone said ‘Facebook’ you’d probably think it was an insult, and ‘MySpace’ would have been nothing more than a sign hanging on an angry teenagers’s bedroom door.
- My parents owned a brick of a mobile phone. 17 year olds didn’t have them. Instead we carried phone cards and 20 pence coins as our key to remote communications.
And so my search for universities began by using the giant UCAS directory in the college careers centre, manually trawling through courses and universities to put together a shortlist of those I wanted to find out more about. The information available at this stage was so limited that I think the criteria for my shortlist was something along the lines of a) did they do the course I wanted to do (I studied literature, so this wasn’t much of a factor to work with given that just about every university in the country offers literature degrees) and b) what grades were they asking for for their course (I only wanted to look at the top universities so this seemed to be a good way to tell whether they were good or not)? Shortlist determined, I picked up the telephone and spoke to a real person and requested further information. The giant prospectuses one by one dropped on the door mat and the coffee table became burdened under the weight of glossy publications with university after university marketing themselves to me.
Now, I’m sat here 13 years later writing up this thing called a ‘blog post’ on my iPad using a wifi connection in my house. Later I’ll ‘tweet’ about it too. If I need to check a reference I’ll quickly dive into safari and google it. I’ve just been on Facebook and my news feed tells me that my teenage cousin has just joined the Middlesex University 2010 freshers’ page. I’ve watched her journey online as she updates us on her application, and shares her frustrations with finance and funding questions. Typically her friends chip in and comment on just about every status update she makes. Everything has changed when it comes to the information now available to students about joining a university, and how they access that information. And yet one thing remains exactly the same: the coffee table creaking under the weight of the prospectuses.
So, last week I spoke at the Discovering Futures ‘Future of the Prospectus’ conference. The question of what will happen to the traditional printed prospectus over the coming years is still being bashed around and nobody really has an answer and I can’t yet see anyone brave enough to do away with it altogether. I expect the arguments are valid: parents like it, people from different countries like them… the arguments go on. But I do find myself questioning the surveys that tell us how popular prospectuses are and how ‘useful’ and influential students say they were in providing them with information. I fear that in some cases they only say this because a) prospectuses are the norm and therefore remain the core item in the student marketing process (perhaps shortly followed by the open day), and b) universities continue to put so much money and effort into producing them, that by the sheer drain in resources that they cause, a decent alternative marketing experience isn’t really given a chance. It’s going to take a brave university to break the mould.
And so discussions at the conference last week focused on alternative formats and print sizes, personalised prospectuses, and some thought to online ‘versions’ (sadly many of which, including mobile versions, remain text-heavy and not fully optimised for the device that they are intended to be used on or bearing in mind the user-experience of using them in a particular way – essentially they are just repurposed versions of something originally written for print). The talk of online PDF versions of the print prospectus fills me with horror.
Universities are all looking to each other to try to be different and find their unique selling point (USP). In doing so, they end up looking the same, online and in print. But I believe the threat doesn’t come from other universities when it comes to defining that USP. Yes, of course each university does need to be distinctive from the next, but I think the real threat that we need to deal with comes from a much bigger question: what is a university and what will it look like in 10 years time? You see, advances in technology don’t just provide us with new spaces in which we can market ourselves as providers of higher education, but they also provide very real opportunities for non-traditional organisations to enter this space and challenge the very notion of what it is to be a university. Academic content and scholarly discussions are no longer jailed within the ivory tower: Google and Apple (amongst others) have set them free. TED provides us with access to the world’s leading thinkers and challenging ideas, and the BBC helps us to learn in such an engaging way that we don’t even realise that when we’re watching their latest documentary, we are in fact learning. And through wikipedia, we can be taught by some 80,000 people, instead of one, and the content can constantly evolve rather than be carved in stone for 10 years until the next edition is published. Social and digital media isn’t just challenging the way that we market universities, but I think it has the potential to fundamentally challenge what a university actually is and who will be the major providers of academic thought and higher education in the future. So, I think when we’re having these discussions about the future of the prospectus, there’s a much bigger question we need to be asking ourselves: what is the USP of universities?