What is the future of the university prospectus and course catalog?

Whether they call it a prospectus, a viewbook, or a course catalog, many universities are shifting away from a reliance on printed versions and adapting their offering online in a variety of innovative ways, including personalization. 

With sustainability rapidly becoming an increasing priority for institutions and the public, this has prompted some smart ways of displaying course catalogs to prospective students.

We look at some of those doing it best in the UK, from tailorable online versions to solely social media offerings.

The paper course catalog – is it obsolete?

Two years of virtual open days made it difficult to get printed prospectuses/course catalogs into student hands, so demand has understandably dropped—but in fact, it already had before the pandemic.

Not only is the environment a major factor behind a reluctance to pick up or order a palpable product, Gen Z is the first cohort of candidates born into a fully digitized world…and reading on screen is second nature to them.

Printed catalogs don't always offer the best value for money, either. They're out of date fast and are a big financial undertaking to write, design, print and deliver.

But they do have the potential to sell universities in a way that digital can't always achieve, and there are still large numbers of universities retaining this traditional product.

However, most are doing so alongside some form of digital version for all-around appeal, with the vast majority simply pushing a PDF download of the print product.

University of Nottingham's recent approach is an interesting one.

University of Nottingham prospectus

University of Gloucestershire announcement on LinkedIn

It printed tiny booklets dubbed a ‘micro prospectus,' displaying a QR code to access the online prospectus, alongside a printed ‘look book'. 

This visual illustration of the University is handed out at Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) fairs and is a cross between a prospectus and a lifestyle magazine.

It sells the University experience, from fresher's week to graduation, without going into detail on specific courses or dates, giving it a longer shelf life.

The benefits of digital-first options

Not only is an online-only offering more cost-effective and environmentally friendly, but it also enables universities to track and analyze data.

And, with the revival of the QR code during the pandemic, it's made it easier than ever to direct students to digital prospectuses and viewbooks, via university fair stands, adverts, and handout cards.

University of Gloucestershire, which launched wristbands with QR codes on in 2020, has been at the forefront of this approach – winning it Gold in Heist Award's 2021 category for the best undergraduate prospectus. 

University of GloucestershireUniversity of Gloucestershire prospectus

University of Gloucestershire's digital prospectus

The product, which also included a bag of wildflower seeds to further reiterate its environmental credentials, came following research that suggested more than 2.5 million prospectuses are printed every year by UK universities.

But with students instinctively look online for specific information, only a handful of pages are being read.

The success of these initiatives has led the institution to completely end their printed prospectus/course catalog solutions.

Personalization – is this the future?

The University of Gloucestershire's digital-first product allows students to effectively build their own mini-portal.

It pulls in content from unlimited course areas of interest, combined with more generalized content on accommodation, fun facts, and virtual campus tours.

The University has reported good results from this approach, with more than half of visitors taking advantage of the opportunity to personalize their content and an uptick in visits from international students (who are traditionally hard to reach using printed prospectuses).

Wrexham University has also implemented a personalized prospectus, which allows potential students to select up to six broad subject areas along with other interests, such as inclusion, accommodation, and sport.

University of Wrexham prospectus

University of Wrexham prospectus

University of Wrexham's personalised prospectus

It enables visitors to build a bespoke PDF complete with student name on the cover, combining information from individual selections with standardized pages on areas such as university rankings and ethos.

Not only is the product giving enquiring students what they want, it's also a brilliant data capture exercise and allows the University to see exactly what courses, information, and issues potential recruits are most interested and engaged in.

Middlesex University, meanwhile, has created an interactive video builder to enable potential students to create a bespoke guide.

The personalized option gives universities an opportunity to create an entirely digital product that works for the individual user, delivering the information they want and need in a neatly packaged online journey.

Middlesex University prospectus

Middlesex University's bespoke video and digital prospectus

Prospectus and course catalog portals and pages

Meanwhile, universities including Northumbria University have opted for a course catalog offering portal that is rich in content and designed to capture attention.

It's easy to navigate and rich in video-led content around each study area, such as student profiles as well as career opportunities.

Northumbria University prospectus

Northumbria University's engaging video-led prospectus

There are 360-degree tours of accommodation and virtual imaging of campus, as well as added content such as a quiz to find out which student halls suit individuals best.

Other universities have created simple but effective lifestyle pages to sell the all-round university experience, with link-outs to course details.

For example, the University of Northampton has homed in on its perks like free laptops as a USP, and has a WhatsApp QR code giving potential students the opportunity for a direct chat.

University of Northhampton prospectusUniversity of Northhampton prospectus and perks

Glasgow University is among the many to be offering a printed prospectus that can also be downloaded, but also has a web page with a content list of what's included in the physical product.

Glasgow University prospectusGlasgow University's prospectus web page

Prospective students can easily access the relevant information they'd find in the prospectus on the Glasgow University website instead.

It's a simple but effective way of offering people the chance to explore the University in a way that suits them.

Social media prospectuses

In a pioneering approach, Arts University Bournemouth has created a course catalog that sits entirely on Instagram.

In a dedicated prospectus account, it has created a stunning aesthetic feed taking visitors on a journey as they scroll, with carousel posts providing more in-depth information and links to some 28 interconnecting accounts dedicated to each subject area.

Arts University Bournemouth prospectus

Arts University Bournemouth's Instagram prospectus page

Meanwhile, it uses guides for more blog-style content and stories to walk prospective students through topics such as the application process and accommodation options.

The University's goal, it says, was to avoid the ‘broadcast' nature of other higher education institutions' marketing and reach prospective students on a level and medium they are already familiar with and use to share their own creativity and ideas.

There is a world of creativity out there when it comes to digital course catalogs and it's a real opportunity for universities to stand out from the crowd, inject some personality into the process and entice new students, as our examples above have shown.

Have you seen any other examples of universities delivering impressive digital-first options?

We'd love to hear about them in the comments below or on social.