Campaign Conversations 2020: Education

Physical, digital or blended: How the education sector adapted to Covid-19 – By Shyam Sunder

By Shyam Sunder, Strategic Marketing Consultant

Clockwise from left: Shyam Sunder, Shirin Aminian, Vinu Chakravarthy, Brendan Michael Vyner

My tryst with professional teaching started two years ago when the first requests for Masterclasses and Power Talks came in from leading universities and schools. Having honed my presentation and public speaking skills during my career, it was a natural extension for ‘knowledge-warriors’ like me who are always seeking to learn and share wisdom with others. It was always one of my biggest passions (marketing, movies, music, food and travel being the others) and with some great feedback coming in from the students, I am fortunate to be reasonably active an as industry tutor in the recent past. 

During this stint, I had the privilege to closely observe and admire how the UAE education sector as a whole managed to quickly adapt and be ready for the abnormal times we are in. I also had the opportunity to know and work with some of the best minds in the industry, three of them participating on this panel, to share how the pandemic has transformed their business and changed their marketing methods. Allow me to introduce: 

Brendan Michael Vyner, who is the Director, Marketing & Student Recruitment at University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD)

Vinu Chakravarthy, Head – Admissions & Marketing, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Dubai Campus

 Shirin Aminian, Founder of Styleschool & Creative Director at FAD International 

The UAE Education sector has undergone a sea change in the recent past with world-class Universities & Institutions entering the market and attracting students from all over the region. How much has Branding & Marketing evolved in the industry? Are you looking at long-term brand building efforts as much as pushing short-term goals such as admissions?

Brendan: Marketing and branding has played a significant role in establishing the UAE as the premier emerging-market international education hub.

When transnational students are looking to travel abroad for higher education, they usually only consider the “Big 4”, USA, UK, Australia and Canada. Now, things have changed with there being stronger visa restrictions in many of these countries and the UAE positioning itself as very student-focused and tourist friendly, with reduced restrictions in visa issuance, high safety and a lower cost of living compared with many of the major cities associated with higher education.

There is so much competition in the higher education sector that universities have to be extremely competitive when attracting international students from abroad.  This requires a detailed understanding of your key target markets, as well as knowing which degrees to promote in each region, as well as your USPs compared with other key international destinations.

One thing strongly in our favour is the international branding of ‘destination Dubai’, which has already been done for us.  It is just as important for us to sell Dubai as a city before we begin to promote our university or degrees to students.  It is critical to understand both the psychology and decision making processes of the students, as influencers and parents, as decision makers when it comes to promoting universities.

We are always launching long-term brand building efforts, focusing on career paths and “hero” careers, as well as more short-term tactical campaigns. The short-term campaigns, although important in promoting specific events and initiatives, will be forgotten once the event is over, but the long-term brand building efforts that conjure an emotional response will remain with our target market for many years to come.

Vinu: Dubai is a frontrunner when it comes to branding and marketing. It keeps surprising the world with its initiatives and inspires us to outdo ourselves. The education industry has been equally quick in evolving its efforts, with digital space attracting the lion’s share. This has also led the universities and institutions to be smarter and more effective in their initiatives, slicing better insights from available data and being more return-intensive. Data also allows us to steer the right efforts in a multidirectional space to strike a healthy balance between long-term brand-building marathons and short-term admission sprints.

Shirin: Brand building in education Is best done through sheer word-of-mouth based on the quality of learning and opportunities provided. We at FAD International believe in the power of organic growth and use outreach marketing only to help amplify the achievements of our students. The fact that we are consistently providing a platform for our students to showcase their talent in London, Paris and Milan Fashion shows is the best form of building our brand. Recently FAD Talents participated at the virtual show conducted by the Arab Fashion Council, which was broadcast live across all our digital platforms. But with the launch of Style School, the region’s first virtual fashion learning platform, we are investing in key digital marketing efforts to reach out to fresh audiences across the region with fair success. 


What’s the single biggest challenge the pandemic has brought for your business? How has it impacted the way you market your brand and courses?

Vinu: I would rather see the current times as an opportunity to progress, a turning point we were all long waiting for, but not realizing the extent of. For over a decade we all worked towards building an infrastructure where marketing activities can be conducted virtually, online. Despite the foundation, we were not able to unleash its capabilities in toto. The pandemic has triggered what would otherwise require decades of effort to induce: a change in consumer behavior. The inability to conduct physical education fairs, admission open days, and campus tours has been posing challenges across the board. However, consumers and customers have become more and more receptive to digital modes of marketing more than ever. There is only one way from here – and that is in the right direction towards a more interactive, more engaging, digital space of branding and marketing.

Shirin: Being a creative institution, most courses are practically tutored studio-based courses. The pandemic has made it challenging but it also has opened up opportunities for learners and us as an institution to evolve. As already mentioned, we have unveiled our online and blended learning courses through StyleSchool, giving students the same industry-based learning, network, exposure and opportunities, along with the ability for them to learn from anywhere and be tutored by industry insiders from across the world. In terms of marketing our courses, in a way it will open new locations and student base as we can access the Middle East seamlessly with the online and blended learning opportunities. 

Brendan: The biggest challenge for us was that we instantly lost the ability to have any form of in-person recruitment event, including domestic and international road shows, campus tours or admission fairs.  

To give an example of how critical these events are, we had more than 50 recruitment related events cancelled from February through June 2020, including our regular open days, which are our highest conversion events.

We realised that our number one recruitment tool, events and exhibitions were now completely gone, and we had to shift to virtual open days and virtual admission consultation while we all worked from home.  

We also realised that we couldn’t rely on the international markets for our students when airports and travel moratoriums were in place.

We were essentially left with digital promotion, social media, websites, WebEx calls and virtual interactions. We had to learn and adapt quickly.

One thing COVID-19 has certainly taught us is that all businesses must adapt to unprecedented rapid changes, or risk becoming obsolete. We saw how vulnerable the education sector was to the pandemic. Traditional university models have always favoured in-class education. Students are the customers and the product is an education delivery system that allows them a better chance of attaining gainful employment after graduation.  All this was turned upside down with no time to plan. We were thankful that we had the IT, internet infrastructure and backbone in place due to preparing to move into our new campus.

The major change to marketing for us was that we shifted our focus inward, on the domestic sector here in the UAE and changed our marketing approach to favour 100 per cent targeted digital marketing solutions and social media campaigns.


Are there any significant changes in the audience profile before March 2020 and for your next intake in September? Have inbound markets changed? 

Shirin: For FAD International Dubai our primary markets remain UAE, KSA, Egypt and Kuwait. By and large, there is a big appetite for physical learning as many of the courses are practical exercises-based with live sessions. In fact, we increased our campus space recently to improve the learning experience and cope with the demand. For StyleSchool, we see a rise in numbers from new markets, especially in Africa. The platform doesn’t have borders and can cater to a global audience and that’s our vision. 

Brendan: Our student audience usually tends to be 70 per cent domestic sector, and 30 per cent international.  With the travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had a heavy focus towards our domestic audience here in the UAE.  

The major boost we saw was increased demand from the UAE’s domestic sector, where upwards of 60,000 students will potentially be stuck and unable to attend universities in the US, UK or Australia for September.  This has created increased demand for accredited, international universities based in the UAE.

I also foresee that we will have a sharp increase in students interested in international universities coming from the GCC, that traditionally would have travelled abroad to these countries. With our blended learning offerings, we should be able to cater to any international students abroad, even if they are unable to travel at this stage, then welcome them to our campus once the restrictions have lifted.

For the September intake, we are still receiving strong applications from our top international markets as travel restrictions are starting to ease, with Emirates now allowing flights coming in from certain locations in time for the upcoming academic year.

Vinu: There has been a sizeable addition to the audience pool in the form of aspirants who are reluctant to travel abroad and are optimistically looking at the domestic universities for their higher studies. Another significant addition is the pool of learners who are assessing wider online learning options. As the Universities mold their academic deliveries to suit these two new segments, the marketing efforts have also adapted to their needs, offering products tailor-made to their requirements. However, with similar reluctance in inbound international students, the overall impact on the audience profile has not been radically huge.


With blended education accelerating digital marketing efforts, what strategy is best working both from a top and bottom of-the-funnel perspectives. How has this changed in the last three months?

Brendan: We were already moving to 100 per cent digital marketing, and COVID-19 just hastened this process along.  As part of our marketing strategy, we prefer using targeted digital marketing and social media channels since we are able to more effectively track ROI for all our campaigns. I am a big proponent of data-driven marketing and this has become increasingly important during the pandemic.

We were able to shift our marketing focus quickly, as we realised we would not be able to have any form of events, school visits or open days.  These are usually the type of activities that drive the most leads for us.

We shifted the significant portion of our marketing spend to be focused on the domestic sector, as we knew many students would not like to waste a year waiting for travel restrictions to ease and would like to begin university as soon as possible.

We launched free Masterclasses for any students who wanted to experience digital and blended learning environments, as we knew that the Summer semester would be delivered online only.  We found that students provided positive feedback and the reluctance to rely on digital classroom learning was tempered by students actually experiencing what a blended learning classroom would be like.

We launched virtual open days and interacted with students and parents from the comfort of their own homes, also reaching out to them at times that were convenient to them. We also offered a digital one-to-one consultation service providing tailored and personalised appointments for students at their convenience.  

COVID-19 has shown how important a personalized and tailored marketing approach is, especially in an environment that does not allow any face-to-face interactions. This has been the biggest change in the last few months, the removal of the face-to-face human element from all of our marketing activities. We have had to replace this with a tailored, digital marketing approach that catered entirely to the needs of the students.

Shirin: Digital marketing has evolved as our biggest lead generator for a while, but with the pandemic it has renewed our focus on key platforms and channels, which are the world’s best from a Fashion Education perspective. While Google, followed by Facebook and Instagram has the helped the top-of-the-funnel objectives, its our strong  email and content marketing practices which continue to convert leads into admissions. Do note: unlike most institutions, we do not promote our courses. We promote our content, which we believe is the best-in-class in our segment. 

Vinu: The strategy for top-of-the-funnel remained the same, except for the added emphasis on our digital outreach efforts. However, with the social distancing and safety norms, the strategy and implementation for bottom-of-the-funnel witnessed a seemingly radical shift. Parents and students often base their final decision on the personal visit to the campus, meeting with the faculty, and experiencing the University facilities first-hand. Replacing those with an entirely digital model of interaction was a drastic, but welcome change. Our virtual infrastructure and digital assets continue to be put to their best use to ensure that personalized experience, plausibly akin to real-life, is provided to the consumers. Availability on varied digital channels and adaptability to use platforms based on consumers’ convenience played a key role in the past three months to guarantee that the bottom-of-the-funnel is aptly met.


How do you manage the challenges of a slow job market when it comes to career counseling and placements? With new skills coming into play on Digital, Tech and Analytics fronts, how have students evolving with what is needed to be employed in these fast growth areas?

Brendan: We were fortunate that COVID-19 hit after our Spring intake. Only our Summer intake has been hit so far and we are confident that, come September, students will have access to our campus and career counselling staff with the appropriate social distancing restrictions in place.

We currently have a very strong placement rate with our students, with 77 per cent for undergraduate students and 85 per cent for post-graduate students within six months of graduation. Our team has dedicated career advisors, a career development centre and also conducts events such as our annual career fair.

I am confident that as the economy slowly picks up and things eventually go back to normal, that students will benefit from being in our new campus which is launching in September 2020, where they will have access to our career services team who will be able to help with everything from CV development to psychometric testing, career mentorship, interview techniques and more.

With the location of our new campus being near Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City and Dubai Knowledge Park, there are many internship and partnership opportunities for students to be involved by the top Fortune 500 companies that are operational in these areas.

Vinu: When it comes to career counseling and placements, we power through the challenges to make sure our students feel supported. The Career Services Team has swiftly adapted to online training for skill-building and interview sessions. The sessions we conducted range from building your LinkedIn profile, resume, and interview skill development for the current times, exploring alternative careers and managing your personal finance to online company presentations, and interviews.

We aim to make sure our students see the different options they have in this environment and to make sure they are equipped with the skills they need to be fully rounded individuals. Through the sessions conducted by the career services department with our industry partners, we walk the students through the current trends in the market and help them identify the tools and skills they need to develop to make them desirable candidates for the current job market.

Shirin: The luxury, fashion and retail sectors, like any other sector, have seen a slow job market, but we feel it would also open doors to entry-level positions with talents with a fresh new perspective. A lot of our students also turn into entrepreneurs, and having a strong industry network helps, which leads to internships and placement introductions even during these challenging times. As for the changing needs of the industry, our dynamic curriculum across courses has been adapting to modules embracing technology for fashion and the luxury markets, but it will take some time for all to adapt to the changing needs.