Photograph of University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge and Catalyst IT EU form a partnership


The University of Cambridge is one of the world’s top ten leading universities, with a rich history of radical thinking dating back to 1209. Its mission is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.

The University comprises of 31 autonomous Colleges and 150 departments, faculties and institutions. Its 24,450 student body includes more than 9,000 international students from 147 countries. In 2020, 70.6% of its new undergraduate students were from state schools, and 21.6% were from economically disadvantaged areas.

Cambridge research spans almost every discipline, from science, technology, engineering and medicine through to the arts, humanities and social sciences, with multi-disciplinary teams working to address major global challenges. Its researchers provide academic leadership, develop strategic partnerships and collaborate with colleagues worldwide.


With rising pressure caused by the current pandemic, those in the higher education sector like Cambridge(external link) faced the challenge of rapid adjustment to a secure, innovative and performant online assessment solution. The technical shift to online examinations began in 2020 and continually gathered momentum well into 2021. Universities are, therefore, developing extensive online assessments to support their student cohorts at home and internationally, who require a method to complete their summative assessments in a Covid secure manner. The move to digital online learning and assessment, has been facilitated for a number of years but has accelerated as a sure and future path.

As a result of the continued COVID-19 pandemic, the need to move to a scalable and stable platform for online examinations became more urgent. Furthermore, the exam solution had to be a known, controlled, and separate environment from the University's main internal Moodle LMS. The University decided to move from an on-premise system to a scalable, fully managed Catalyst-hosted solution leveraging the benefits of cloud computing. This system was required to support 30,000 students taking multiple high-stakes exams across ten weeks, with some sessions seeing over 1000 concurrent events taking place.

With the Examination platform provided by Catalyst, the University of Cambridge carried out the examination design, configuration and preparation unhindered and entirely to their own designs and structure. These exams were a mixture of assignment-based and multiple choice question-based models as agreed by the central examinations office at the university and supported by the Teaching & Learning Services Team.
The responsibility of safeguarding Cambridge University's heritage, reputation and brand lay with the guaranteed success of a stable, robust e-assessment solution.

The stakes are very high for students taking online summative assessments, especially those facing graduation. The university has to operate in multiple time zones to globally support their students who are now learning from global locations in many cases.

The assessment programme solution needed to operate with no issues or downtime. Learners and staff must remain confident and reassured by the system's performance and its end-user experience. All of this must happen without compromising quality and security. To effectively support domestic and global students, the University has to maximise its focus and efforts on exam design and end-user support, providing flexibility, accessibility and inclusion for all.


The University chose to partner with Catalyst IT to take the assessment system online in fast response to COVID-19 lockdowns while maintaining the standards and stability of the platform. The University utilised the tried and tested examination solution we have for others, including:

  • Monash University
  • Dublin City University
  • Concordia University.

Catalyst’s e-assessment solution utilised the Cambridge University custom Moodle code base and deployed this onto a proven scalable AWS architecture. This included all of Cambridge’s core customisations, features and plug-ins – ensuring the student experience was familiar to the day-to-day online learning experiences.

The system was load-tested to replicate student behaviour. Load-testing delivers assurance that user traffic peaks don't impact the end user’s experience. As a default Catalyst load test to 200% of expected peak load, applying both spike testing and soak testing using our custom suite of Jmeter scripts.

Cambridge retained complete administrative control and application access. Catalyst also provided our full 24/7 Service Level Agreement, guaranteeing that any technical issues will be investigated and resolved promptly.

The implementation testing and release of the scalable e-assessment platform was delivered in six weeks, with an additional six weeks provided to the Cambridge University stakeholders to design, develop and implement the examination events.


Catalyst and the University of Cambridge provided up to 1,200 concurrent examinations at peak periods and completed over 30,000 individual examinations. The most resounding factor in this success was the close and positive collaboration and partnership between all stakeholders. Catalyst and University of Cambridge UIS teams worked closely with daily stand-ups, clear action and decision flows and robust testing and verification to ensure the delivery of a smooth examination programme.

As a result, the solution and partnership have been extended for an additional 12 months as we continue to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and return to normal.

Joey Murison commented, "During examination periods, the slightest incident can cause huge ramifications and challenges. Students are heavily affected when the system fails to meet the expected normal levels of performance and response. With the stakes as high as they are and student/staff concern at all-time highs, removing all risks associated with the system's performance and resilience is of huge benefit. Catalyst is fully confident in our proven and mature e-assessment solution. It performs without any degradation up to significant levels of traffic/load during the high-stakes exam window – backed by the infinite scalability (both horizontally and vertically) provided by AWS."

"As a partner, Catalyst was quick and easy to respond to enquiries, with very open communication channels. Catalyst incorporated all Cambridge University’s policies, procedures and restrictions around code management and maintenance practices."

- Jessica Comber-Chaney, Service Manager and Team Leader, University of Cambridge.