Newcastle University can trace its origins to 1834 with a strong civic mission to advance education, learning and research for the public benefit. As a founding member of the Russell Group, Newcastle University has a global reputation for academic excellence, innovation, and creativity.
The University plays a leading role in the North East of England, having a significant influence on the economy and culture of the area by working with the regional and local community, businesses, and industry. Employing over 6,000 members of staff, and with over 28,000 students across undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, the University draws people into the region and encourages a strong local community and economy. While being predominantly based in Newcastle, the University has strong global presence with campuses in Singapore and Malaysia. The also University has a clear drive to Widening Participation as part of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy and this is reflected in our inclusive approach to the applicant experience.
Newcastle University wanted to build and sustain a digital infrastructure that could combine the undergraduate and postgraduate application process effectively and efficiently into one simple platform. This needed to include an integrated application platform for direct applicants and international applicants and their agents, so they could self-manage applications with minimal complexity and optimum user experience.
Previously, there were multiple entry points into the application process, so applicants from each entry point had completely different applicant experiences. This project, therefore, aimed to create a unified, single applicant experience to standardise each applicant’s journey and the processing of the application.
The University also wanted to reduce manual effort throughout the application process by introducing automation for task management and workflows so that staff could focus on more complex application exemptions rather than standard tasks, including removing the need to receive documentation via email and manual upload processes.
Overall, the admissions cross-functional and end-to-end processes needed a radical redesign, spanning from application to registration to remove complexity, measure performance and facilitate further improvements in the future. This would require consolidating the admissions data and making it easily available for administrators to process applications.
The main driver for change was to improve applicants and agents user experience. By internally improving the admissions process and allowing applicants to manage their applications throughout the process via a portal, applicants would have visibility over the process – creating a positive and efficient experience overall.
The Crimson Engagement Framework and the Crimson Higher Education Accelerator were applied to the Newcastle University project with the full admissions process – application through to registration, being implemented by Crimson.
The project was split into three phases using an agile approach with a collaborative Digital Scrum Team comprised of both Crimson and Newcastle University staff. This combined team developed a solution based on Dynamics 365 and used Power Platform as a donor platform to introduce new ways of working.
This phased, agile approach enabled the team to incrementally implement functionality to ensure early outcomes, prove value and enable continuous delivery. The first phase focused on a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) for PGT applications (Post-Graduate Taught) and PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) with the expectation that the MVP would deliver value, scope for future developments and validate whether the solution would be suitable early on.
Phase 1 began in April 2021 when the core team was established and the value measurement was defined. Over the next 9 months the PGT admissions portal for direct and international applicants and agents, PGCE integration with the Department for Education, referral to academic selectors across the institution, automated offer letters, CAS and visa integration and more were developed. The portal also offered a single point for agents both to make multiple applications and view their progress and offered a single point of contact with applicants to share information and upload documents.
Phase 1 also included building the option to automatically offer scholarships on submission, as well as competitive scholarships available through an application process built into the portal. This encompasses the automation of reference requests and the consolidation of evidence in one view.
Following the successful delivery of Phase 1 the team quickly moved onto Phase 2 expanding the system to deliver the end-to-end PGR application (Postgraduate Research) process and UG (Undergraduate) applications, integrating with UCAS via the University SAP system. Again, the focus was on improving the applicant experience for PGR and undergraduate applicants, and improved reporting and insights. PGR Studentships were aligned with academic applications via the portal; undergraduate applicants were able to manage their applications within the portal, including the ability to upload evidence documents. The UG teams and widening participation teams supporting the applicant journey using specific Apps, to identify key criteria for widening participation. Confirmation and Clearing processes, data management, undergraduate visa management, and SAP integrations for undergraduates were also included in Phase 2.
Phase 3 started at the beginning of March 2023 and focused on looking beyond MVP and adding value to the applicant experience. The focus was on piloting a more automated approach to sifting applications, accessing and categorising applications to improve processing times and applicant decisions. The automation ‘black box’ identifying and suggesting applications which would be suitable for unconditional offers and conditional offers, so the administrator could review recommendations and speed up decisions. This phase also delivered a process to support Agent Commission and the B2B processes previously managed in disjointed systems.
The delivery was business-led rather than IT-led and ensured the project objectives were at the core of all decision-making with the applicant experience always being prioritised. Throughout the project, efficiency among teams was improved meaning no additional staff were required and existing staff were able to automate standardised tasks and reprioritise based on complexity.
As a business-led program the Crimson team have worked very closely with Newcastle University to empower the business to directly influence the delivery of the system. Newcastle University’s admissions process now provides a full service for undergraduate and postgraduate applicants, plus international agents. This process is enabled through a portal, where applicants can apply, accept offers, receive their offer letters, view the status of their application, make enquiries and even apply for visas and scholarships. The portal is 24/7 and is used globally, encouraging international students and their agents to the portal.
The system is also integrated into Newcastle University’s back-end systems (such as SAP for finance) which allows students to pay deposits etc. with a link from the portal to a secure payment site. There is also integration with the Department for Education for postgraduate courses, and there are processes in place for direct undergraduate applicants.
The University also has a relationship with the INTO University Group and there are processes in place that have reduced manual interventions for bringing those applicants in to the portal if, and when, necessary.
Thanks to the Microsoft technologies the University has implemented PowerBI for quick and easy reporting and analysis of data to drive informed decisions.
Newcastle University’s Admissions teams have historically been overwhelmed with the number of applications, but the new systems have meant they can better prioritise their time by streamlining processes and taking away some of the burden. Integrated interview management for PGCE students for example has taken away some administration tasks and the University will continue to look at ways to improve decision making throughout the admissions journey.
Through integrated two-way enquiry management (inbound and outbound) applicants can easily contact staff. Also, staff can quickly request information through the portal which means that all enquiries and information is kept in one place while also reducing email traffic and improving response times.
With between 30,000 and 40,000 undergraduate applications and upwards of 50,000 Postgraduate applications, the University now has one single system across every applicant journey. As a result of this project, the University has extended and integrated Dynamics 365 across all the existing admissions systems. This ensures every applicant has the same quality experience when applying and improves efficiency of University staff as the whole admissions process and is managed within a single solution.
The new portal and application processing system was initiated and deployed in just over two years, or just under three academic cycles. For a project of this size and complexity, that is a mammoth achievement and the success of the project cannot be underestimated.
Crimson has supported the strategic expansion of the Admissions Life Cycle and is currently working with the University to map out further improvement for the ‘Student Journey’ looking at how digital technology can support a seamless student to alumni roadmap for technology. Adding value for the student and reducing the administration burden for the University.
Newcastle University also aims to improve and develop the use of automation and AI in their processes as well as broadening the use of Dynamics 365 across the student journey, adding value to processes. Dynamics 365 will also support B2B relationships at Newcastle University as well as the expansion of their marketing efforts.