Milton Keynes ‘will redefine the civic university for the 21st century’

A newcomer in the Oxford-Cambridge innovation corridor will reshape our understanding of what higher education is for, says Lynette Ryals

March 30, 2018
University of Liverpool

The value of higher education is being challenged, as never before, by students and by employers.

Milton Keynes’ own university (MK:U) will be an important moment for demonstrating that value.

Over the next few years, as proposals are tested, we will see a laboratory for the future of higher education in action. For the first time, this will be a university created to fulfil specific future economic and city development needs: a university that’s genuinely “for” the city rather than “of” the city, and a model that many other institutions are likely to imitate.

Milton Keynes Council has big ambitions to grow the city into a major hub for hi-tech businesses at the heart of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford innovation corridor.

It knows that a lack of available skills, in the region and nationally, and an “engine” for continually developing and refreshing digital and tech knowledge, will be a major barrier to those plans. A new university will be a major generator of economic power in one of the country’s largest urban areas without its own university.

Starting from scratch means that MK:U can be built around a combination of existing strengths, heritage and the skills needs of employers over the long term. There is a thread leading from the pioneers of computing, the code-breakers of Bletchley Park, through to the city’s development as a model smart city, and a need for new generations with the skills to fuel the fourth industrial revolution, with such developments as autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.

Each educational “pillar” of the university’s offering will include a lead role for a business in design, delivery and support via placements. There will be an emphasis on technology, inclusivity and seamless transitions for students between study and employment over the course of their working lives, not only when they leave school or college.

The focus on a university for digital skills means the city will have a strong identity within the UK and internationally, building on MK’s pioneering spirit as a developing new town over the years.

This new kid on the block will be able to do something that can be hard for established universities – be open to business partnership, break the mould, attach itself to its community – because it comes without the baggage of past experiences and perceptions, of institutions that have operated in sometimes distant and less accessible ways.

For the first time, the sector will be able to see the full potential for not only a business-facing approach but a business-partnership one, founded on an involvement at the beginning of strategic planning.

The same applies to integration with the plans of council authorities and community stakeholders other than those in business; that is, with schools and further education colleges, parents and other local groups. This can be a university that belongs to the community rather than being an add-on, built at the heart of the city (next to the train and bus stations) and within easy walking distance of the shopping centre and theatre district. The new university has pledged to be open to all, not just to its students.

The plan for MK:U is to make it a galvanising force, linked by educational pathways to the city’s schools and further education college, that will encourage more young people to work towards higher skills. In this way, there is a sense of a packaged offer for the region.

If you’re living in the MK area, you’re part of something special, plugged into the digital revolution and all the learning and career opportunities that go along with it. It will be an environment that is attractive to students but also to academic staff looking to settle with their families.

Another challenge for higher education has been finding ways to tap into the need for lifelong learning. While attitudes to careers have changed – people switch jobs more often or jump tracks to entirely different kinds of work – the perception of the university offering continues to be fixed in terms of the “upfront” provider before a career starts.

MK:U will be looking to establish a different kind of relationship via the principle of “membership”. In most sectors, and particularly in digital technologies, there’s a need to refresh skills every few years or so, and MK:U will be geared towards ongoing relationships with its learners and opportunities for re-joining the campus community.

Over the course of MK:U’s development, we are going learn a great deal about renewing higher education for the 21st century.

And the findings are going to be invaluable for debates with government, and the nation as a whole, over how the modern-day university is adapting to change, making itself more essential than ever to the UK’s economic health and social vitality.

Lynette Ryals is programme director for MK:U and pro-vice-chancellor for education at Cranfield University.

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