What we learned from the 2020 Heist Awards

The Heist Awards, now in its thirtieth year, is a staple in the education marketing calendar, celebrating brilliance and innovation across the sector.

This year's event was hosted virtually and included talks from leading industry experts. Here's our round-up of insights from the speakers and panel sessions, including students' perspectives on studying during the pandemic and how it's affected their university life, the latest trends in postgraduate demand, and observations on how you could develop online courses whilst still maintaining the student experience.

Life Interrupted - the student perspective

In this session, inspired by research from Havas Education, Media Client Services Director, Natasha Kyndt, and YouthSight Managing Director, Josephine Hansom, spoke directly with students from year 12 and year 13 about their experiences during the pandemic.

Students on the panel described their lockdown academic experience as socially challenging in terms of feeling isolated at times, working from a screen alone, instead of interacting as much with teachers and fellow students.

However, the quick adoption of online learning and resources by their schools and prospective universities meant they were able to complete academic assignments and explore university options with relative ease.

When asked about their experiences researching future university choices, students listed personal perspectives of current and former students as one of the areas most useful to them. Online Q&A sessions with former school students who had gone on to attend university were particularly helpful in the university decision-making process.


Meanwhile, all of the students on the panel said being able to visit prospective universities and the local areas in person was key for them in their decision-making process, yet many found the on-demand content available through university websites to be the next best thing - particularly virtual open days, browsable online prospectuses and campus tours.

When asked how universities could provide further guidance to prospective students, they all cited the need for reassurances about the full university experience available to them and how friendships and social events could work if restricted social measures continued. Being able to take a more detailed look at what the local area and university campus have to offer were also listed as important.

Trends in postgraduate international and domestic demand

In this session, Ed Kelly and Ben Farquharson from IDP Connect shared insights from research on postgraduate student demand in the context of COVID-19.

During the session, Ed presented research findings that showed that whilst the pandemic has understandably disrupted demand from international students, it has affected decision-making in different ways for different markets. Student study participants from India were largely concerned about the practical issues of being able to leave their home country, whilst students from China were more risk-averse and concerned about safe travel to their destination of choice and feeling welcome there.

One of Kelly's key takeaways from the research was the importance of diversity in international student numbers. He commented that "with different markets having such different outlooks on some of the macro shifts, having an institution that is ‘overweight' in one student population is likely to leave you exposed." Diversity in markets seems key.

Kelly also warned marketers and recruiters against taking a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to international students, saying: "it's crucially important that we're delivering the right messaging but also the right support to students and not treating all international students the same."

heist conference

During his section of the presentation, Ben Farquharson discussed research on the UK domestic student population and their attitude towards university study. Ben's key takeaways from the research were that students have a very future-focused approach to learning and online accessibility and blended learning opportunities will be crucial in order for them to thrive, both during the pandemic and in a post-Covid world.

Ben echoed Ed's sentiments around the need for nuanced messaging and targeting for students, who are looking to feel seen and heard as individuals within a university.

Ben then went on to mention that a data-led approach to portfolio management is key for institutions wanting to gain real-time insights and to make developmental changes as they look ahead to the future of study in the UK.

How to develop online courses whilst maintaining brand and student experience

In this fascinating panel session, Head of Marketing Innovation and Development, Angela Sexton, from the University of London spoke to Ian Myatt, Director of Education Enterprise at the University of Birmingham, and Patrick Griffin, Regional Vice President EMEA, Wiley Education Services, about online learning and the digital student experience.

Discussing the main challenges that universities face in terms of course portfolio and delivery models, Ian mentioned that many institutions have been providing predominantly full-time, on-campus courses. His key takeaway was that in order to be truly international, universities will now need to think about how they can extend their footprint, delivering courses not just on campus but globally - with online being the obvious place to do so.

Ian went on to mention that courses should be developed in parallel to how people want to consume them going forward, commenting that "as people start to think about life-long learning and how to fit that within forming a career, then part-time study becomes important as well. The flexibility that part-time online learning provides allows you to reach new audiences and people you were not able to provide for before."

When asked what the pandemic has done for the evolution of online learning Patrick mentioned that, as the entire landscape has changed, there are a number of challenges universities have to overcome.

One key area of consideration is the fact that online skillset is a very different one from the face-to-face environment. And whilst there was a mad rush to prepare online lessons for students as a result of the pandemic, ideally, it shouldn't be just taking that face-to-face learning and putting it online. To do it really effectively, you have to spend the time so that what you put out there is sound and is going to really engage students.

Patrick advised marketers and recruiters to be aware of the different environment of online learning and the different level of support required, saying, "marketers need to be conscientious in providing the right kind of support and ensuring there aren't any gaps in the student journey so that students feel a part of their community."

Ian talked through his own experiences in setting up a fully online MBA course at Birmingham University, "what we realized when we started was that we didn't have all of the required expertise and resources in-house to create a course. We looked within the market at opportunities to partner with other organizations and experts that had done it previously who we could learn from. There are a lot of organizations out there that will offer investment to help you get started because the reality is that designing a truly online experience takes time and effort and budget. It's a very different business model."

The evening was packed with insights and we've only just scratched the surface here. For further information about the Heist Awards and to get a full rundown on all of the information shared by the experts during the talks, you can sign up for the Heist Awards mailing list here.