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INTO's Digital Student Application System

Radically refining and expanding higher education opportunities for students through a restructured application system.

The Challenge
Reforming and Reshaping INTO’s Student Application System

Through innovative partnerships with leading universities, INTO expands opportunities for higher education, ensuring success and transforming the lives of students and staff respectively. Across the world, there is increasing demand for top quality higher education, with more and more students demanding access to provision beyond their home country. INTO partners with universities in three continents to address this global demand and help transform their international capacity and performance.

Read further to discover how we built the best-in-industry INTO Partner Portal revolutionising INTO's operations by moving 90% of agent-source applications online and digitising in excess of £100m/yr of business.

Since 2006, INTO has successfully launched partnerships with 24 leading universities across Europe, North America and Asia, enrolled over 67,000 students from 166 countries, and now has over 1,800 employees based round the world.

Cantarus began a professional partnership with INTO to help them develop and improve systems and processes, in order to achieve its goal of expanding higher education opportunities for students across the world.

Cantarus was tasked with restructuring their existing application system. The project consequently could be divided into three distinct stages: modernising the application process, digitising printed content, and extending the application process to secondary school institutions.

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The Solution
Prior to engaging Cantarus, INTO were unable to deliver a solution hosted outside of China because of the unique properties of the Chinese internet – notably, the ‘Great Firewall’.

INTO therefore required us to prove we could deliver strong performance in China as part of an initial trial before we engaged fully to deliver the project. We were able to satisfy and exceed their expectations via combining an intrinsically high-performance architecture and tech stack, with intelligent use of Content Delivery Networks (CDNs).

Modernising the Application Process

Traditionally, INTO had relied on a handwritten application process. Students would meet with an INTO agent, who would then complete a handwritten form to be submitted to the INTO admissions team.

This resulted in a laborious, time-consuming process that could lead to delays, errors, and dissatisfied users. Since the application was carried out by hand, no information was stored on a network, meaning that if any application forms were misplaced or damaged, the form would have to be resubmitted at the beginning of the process.

To remedy this issue, Cantarus built the ‘Partner Portal’ – an online platform that would deliver a significant upgrade to INTO’s application process and reduce the time and resources consumed by dealing with handwritten applications.

Paper applications were replaced with a single online form that promoted an intuitive user experience (UX) through simple information architecture and clean visual graphics. Included in this refresh was the ability for agents to shortlist their students’ preferred universities and courses, and receive news updates regarding these choices throughout the application process.

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In addition to streamlining the initial application process, the Partner Portal allows all applications to be monitored, reviewed and amended after submission, enabling INTO agents to instantly provide up-to-date information to students.

To further restructure the application process, we custom-built an infinitely flexible workflow engine that ensures all applications are reviewed by the correct person at the correct time, an invaluable feature to an organisation as large and organisationally complex as INTO.

Having designed a system that would allow agents across the world to create, track, and manage applications, we used the same technology to open the process to secondary schools. Secondary schools’ careers and guidance counsellors play a significant role in the university application process for prospective higher education students. Therefore, by making the INTO Partner Portal open to students, they were able to tap into a large market.

The secondary education model is vastly different from the INTO agent network for which the digital form was originally built, and it was therefore impossible for Cantarus to simply ‘transplant’ the agency model to the school network. We needed a full understanding of the intricacies of the typical secondary education workflows and processes in order to create a form that would be best suited to this environment and would provide the highest-level of value to the counsellors.

The addition of the Partner Portal form to a school environment provides overseas students with even greater access to discover and apply to their ideal university, and by leveraging the relevant expertise and support of careers counsellors, students can use all of the tools at their disposal to make a strong application.

Putting Digital Content First

The university application experience is traditionally associated with a deluge of flyers, brochures, forms and other printed materials. INTO wanted to move away from a reliance on paper-based collateral and implement a digital-first approach. This shift in perspective may appear simple, but such a radical change required a clear strategy and a significant level of technical expertise.

The new digital content pages included all the information required for the university application process: campus guides, course prospectuses and subject profiles. We decided that it would be appropriate to serve the content ‘headlessly’ since some of it will be repurposed across agent-facing and student-facing portals, as well as PDF versions. INTO’s internal content editors are able to use this headless functionality to edit a single piece of content once, and the changes will then be made to all individual versions of the content.

The cross-organisational development team identified that simply digitising existing print content would not provide a sufficiently valuable UX. The content would need to be paired with a robust search tool to allow users to find the exact content they are looking for. This resulted in the creation of the content search tool which uses external micro-services to maximise content visibility.

We were also able to integrate with Salesforce, which was a highly complex and technical task. INTO use the Salesforce CRM application for questions, e.g. University A has questions X and Y as required fields, but Z as an optional field, whereas University B requires question X, Y is optional, and doesn’t even ask question Z. They also use Salesforce to manage completed applications for students, including any supplied documents such as passports. We had to pull the complicated questions data out of Salesforce and display it an easy-to-use form. Agents could apply to more than one university at a time, but any shared questions that were asked on both applications needed to be auto-populated on the subsequent forms, so they didn’t have to rekey information multiple times. We also allowed them to upload relevant documents, and then push all the application data back into Salesforce.

Personalised Brochures

The ‘Search and Share’ module allows agents to search for courses and shortlist up to 10, to compare key information on a large matrix. The comparison matrix can then be translated between English and Chinese, and downloaded as a printable PDF to share directly with students and their families. This is a particularly compelling feature as each student gets a highly personalised experience.

Knowledge transfer, Co-operation, Independence & Constant Improvement

Cantarus knew that the INTO project wouldn’t run like a normal project with a defined length and concrete goals. We initially engaged with INTO in July 2015 and continue to collaborate with them to identify areas for improvement and opportunities to create a superior UX for agents, students and other stakeholders. These ongoing enhancements range from UX changes to translation of large amounts of content from English to Chinese.

INTO built its own development team which we have worked together with over the past few years. We worked with INTO to teach them the Agile Scrum methodology which they now use across their various development teams. This has enabled INTO to maximise cost efficiency, whilst building their own competency in-house. This also ensures that INTO can choose to continue working with the Cantarus team.

The Results

INTO are thrilled with the results from the restructure over the past few years. Highlights from the project results so far include:

  • The INTO Partner Portal transacts business in excess of £100m/yr,
  • 30% increase in users year-on-year,
  • 20% increase in returning users,
  • 113% increase in pageviews on areas of the site where detail is provided on universities and courses, demonstrating more active engagement with INTO’s portfolio,
  • High adoption rate of digital applications,
  • Significant increase in completed applications per day,
  • Printed supported material used by INTO agents was converted to a digital format and made available on demand from a newly created central repository,
  • 90% of agent sourced applications are now done via the portal.
  • Time spent processing applications has drastically reduced due to the newly introduced search capability, allowing more applications to be submitted daily and releasing resources to be used in other areas of the business.

The partnership between INTO and Cantarus has made a substantial contribution to our success over the last three years or more. Working closely with our people, Cantarus have delivered and then helped us to evolve a global student applications portal that has changed our industry and far exceeded our targets in terms of encouraging our agents to switch to digital-only processes. Cantarus’ work has helped us to dramatically improve agent productivity, reduce application re-work and, critically, shrink the time between an application submission and a decision.

Andy Fawcett, Chief Technology Officer