Going Online: A UK University Expands Enrollments and Student Diversity

Last updated on: July 10, 2023

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Founded in 1900, the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom is a top-ranked public research and teaching institution and a member of the prestigious Russell Group. The University is characterized by its tradition of research and innovation, both of which have resulted in breakthroughs that have furthered knowledge and improved many lives. As one of England’s first universities to admit students regardless of their religion or background, it continues its commitment to equality and diversity today, with an explicit initiative toward improving access to its programs.

Challenge: Expanding Access Through Online Programs

Leaders at the University of Birmingham noticed a growing need for flexible education formats to fit students’ busy schedules and determined that they needed to offer graduate degrees in a completely online format. Doing so would expand the accessibility of its programs to students beyond the reach of its physical campus, allowing them to benefit from the quality learning experience offered by the University as well as earn a degree from a prestigious and respected institution no matter their location.

While the University already provided distance learning and blended forms of education, an internal evaluation found that a partnership arrangement would enable them to scale online programs faster than they could do on their own, and would also bring insight and experience that would complement its existing initiatives.

The Strategy

A respected and trusted brand in academia, Wiley had strong relationships with stakeholders at the University of Birmingham. Ultimately, the University chose to partner with Wiley University Services in 2014 for support spanning the entire student journey. For Wiley, the University was the company’s first partner in the United Kingdom.

Wiley and the University of Birmingham immediately began working on the first three online programs planned to launch: an MBA, a Masters of Public Administration, and an MSc International Business. Coordinating from its office in Chichester, UK, Wiley provided support in marketing research, marketing strategy, course planning, module design and development, faculty training, technical support, student recruitment, student retention, and online education strategy consulting.

Following direction on the content and curriculum from the University, Wiley developed modules (courses) to be offered in the University’s campus virtual learning environment, Canvas. Wiley also developed a blended program that leveraged modules and content originally developed for one of the fully online programs. This reuse of content supported an efficient use of resources, one of the foundational concepts of the University’s program development methodology.

As a result of dedicated collaboration by both parties and the addition of Wiley resources, the online programs went live in March 2015. Following the launch, Wiley focused on collecting data to test, refine, and optimize its approach and marketing messaging to ensure strong performance and cost-effectiveness in the long term. Efforts specifically focused on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), paid search, and affiliate channels, along with some traditional marketing and online advertising. Ensuring that paid media efforts were highly geographically targeted helped prevent overspending, while organic search provided data insights that supported effective targeting. Wiley then further leveraged trends that emerged in these areas to target marketing efforts on a more detailed level.

The Results

The data indicated a significant international audience for the University’s online programs. Noticing this trend, Wiley added the ability to advertise testimonials from current students in a particular local or regional area based on the viewer’s own geographical location, in addition to making updates to design and copy in August 2016. These changes generated an increase in website page conversions from 3.39 percent to 5.52 percent (a 57 percent increase). The testimonials were then used in an interactive map to illustrate the global diversity of current students and address prospective students’ possible fears of isolation, as well as to showcase the University’s global brand recognition and credibility.

Overall, through consistent testing and adjustments based on analytics and careful monitoring of paid media spending, the University was able to increase the rate of students who applied after inquiring by 718 percent. The focus on analytics also secured opportunities such as paid advertorials in international publications; a 2017 article in the Nigerian Guardian resulted in 16.7 percent of prospective students who inquired about the programs submitting an application. Marketing on a worldwide basis has resulted in over 550 students from over 95 different countries joining the University of Birmingham’s programs in the three years following the launch, adding a truly international perspective to the student experience.

Further, since the online programs launched, enrollment has increased with each start (roughly 50 percent for the MBA and 25 percent each for the other two programs) as a result of optimized marketing and recruitment activities. In March 2019, the University saw its largest start yet for the Wiley-supported programs. At the same time, Wiley’s student support team has ensured that Birmingham achieves module-to-module retention levels that at 88 to 95 percent exceed expectations.

Another highlight from the partnership was the accreditation of the online MBA and the online MSc International Business from the Association of MBAs (AMBA), the leading international authority on postgraduate business education. The University of Birmingham’s programs were the first fully online programs of their kind to receive this qualification. This accreditation usually requires face-to-face contact, but Wiley worked closely with the University to ensure that modules were developed in a way that would provide a level of engagement among remote students that would satisfy AMBA requirements, including offering live seminar sessions every two weeks. Strong module design was supported by detailed activity reporting behind the scenes to make sure that the University could provide proof of participation. As a result, the University was able to offer this program with no residential or on-campus requirements.

Looking Ahead

As a result of this success, the University of Birmingham and Wiley are currently exploring a number of new innovations and opportunities to further expand the University’s offerings. In addition, the University is currently taking advantage of Wiley’s flexible framework approach to its services, which allows for individual support and technology services to be provided on an as-needed basis.

Wiley University Services Offerings

Wiley is responsible for these services in the partnership:

Market Assessment

Program Design and Development

Marketing and Brand Management


Enrollment Management

Student Retention Services

24×7 Help Desk

Institution’s Roles and Responsibilities

The University handles the following areas:

Curriculum and Content

Program Design and Development


Faculty & Instruction


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