After years in the planning, our city has a new university. We spoke to Ross Renton, ARU Peterborough’s inaugural Principal, to find out more...
What was the initial attraction for you of coming to be ARU Peterborough’s first-ever Principal?
There is a wealth of reasons! First of all, I’m passionate about social mobility and widening access to higher education. For much of my career, in fact, I’ve been involved in designing or delivering initiatives to improve access to higher education. Peterborough and the Fenlands are some of the ‘coldest’ spots in the UK for progression to higher education and also have low rates of social mobility – but it’s a city that’s got so much talent. There’s an old adage: talent is spread evenly across the country, but opportunity isn’t. I did love the job I was already doing and it wasn’t that I was looking for something new, but this is an opportunity that doesn’t come up very often – new universities don’t get created in the UK very often! – and particularly universities at this scale, the kind of large development we have with ARU Peterborough. So, it’s exciting and inspirational, and an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives – whether they’re coming straight from school or college, or returning to learning, it’s really all about opening up those opportunities for all.
Which of your skills or experiences do you think you’ll be most able to utilise with this new challenge?
I think that I’m a highly collaborative person. I actively look to work with others and I want to bring the best I can to projects, so the first thing to do is find the right people to work with. I am a big believer in being out and about, meeting people, so I’ve been to a number of community organisations and meetings across the city, and we’ve opened up the campus as well. The first event we held on campus was a community day – it wasn’t about getting the VIPs onto campus, it was about getting the community in so they can see what this university can offer them, at whatever stage in life they are. The ideal in any leadership post is to bring out the best in others, and I’ve got a fantastic team that I work with – you simply won’t get what you need done if you haven’t got people on-board with you. I’m really proud of the colleagues we have, because they’ve got a very clear understanding of our mission and what we’re trying to achieve. It’s obviously working to some extent because we’re winning awards for the new university already – no one expected that in the first year of teaching.
Can you tell us a bit about those awards?
It’s been a combination of different kinds of recognition – and some of that is being recognised by our peers, for example the University Alliance award which was about collaboration. That really stood out, especially if you think about how this university – built and designed during a pandemic when it was difficult to do anything, never mind start a new venture of this scale – has collaborated across different professions and parts of the city, as well as with our excellent partners, Peterborough City Council and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. The other award worth highlighting is ‘University of the Year’ in the UK Social Mobility Awards, which involved a number of sectors including big, blue chip companies. For me, at the heart of what we’re doing, is social mobility – people being able to do better if they have the desire and talent to do so. The ingredients we’ve used to support these ambitions are: working with companies and bringing forward degree apprenticeships, working with schools and colleges regarding the opportunities and pathways that students can take, and inspiring people about what the future could look like. If you’ve been onto the campus, you’ll see that we feel a bit different than a traditional university – we were designed specifically to really benefit from having excellent teaching staff, but also input from industry.
You mention links with local industry and how this feeds into the education ARU Peterborough offers. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
There’s a real heritage in this city around industry, particularly if you think about Caterpillar and Perkins – that’s the example that stands out, but actually there are so many hidden gems; businesses and organisations that people perhaps aren’t so much aware of. We’ve found ourselves working with some of the very large organisations – we’ve got degree apprenticeships involving input from bodies like the Environment Agency – but then we’re also working with smaller, really innovative companies that are expanding and also have confidence in our city. Test Labs is a really nice example of that: they’re a company that has been working with our students, giving them real-life briefs. In fact, on almost all of our courses students get what we call ‘live briefs’, giving them the opportunity to help solve challenges that come up in the real world, in the workplace, and everyone is reaping the benefit. Those kinds of partnerships are exciting and will, I think, encourage more inward investment into the city.
How do you see the combination of ‘town and gown’ developing in the future?
For me, it’s about being permeable – both in terms of the university’s physical space, and also our attitudes, values and culture. When it comes to the physical space, deliberately there aren’t big fences or walls around the campus. We want this to be a space the community can come into, and use and enjoy. We’ve had people already coming and having picnics on the campus, and that means they’re walking past our labs on the ground floor, looking through the windows and asking what we are doing, how can they get involved, how can they find out more. For us, that permeability all makes a difference. In the future, I hope to see arts events taking place on the campus as well – we’ve already hosted a number of local events, for example for the civic society – they had their annual lecture here – and we’re hoping that everyone can benefit from having a university in the heart of the city. I’m really happy for people to come in and use the café, which anyone from Peterborough will remember is on the site of the old roller disco, and I remember speaking to someone from just across the road, in the assisted living facility, a lady in her 80s,and she asked if she could come in and use the café. I said, absolutely – everyone should benefit from a university being in their city.
We’re hearing a lot about Phase Three of the building programme at the moment, particularly things like ‘The Living Lab’, which sounds really interesting!
It’s utterly amazing! It’s going up so fast [the building will be open to students and the public from September 2024] and best of all it’s an environmentally sustainable building. It will be beautiful inside, too, and we’ve got a range of really exciting facilities including three brand-new engineering labs, which allow us to expand the engineering offering, as well as microbiology facilities including a tissue lab. And as you say, the Living Lab, which really fits with our ethos, where we want everyone to benefit from having a university here. A good example of something that can be possible with the Living Lab facilities is, say, if you’ve got an industry that wants to launch an innovative product or service, they can work with our expert researchers, work with the public for beta testing, and that kind of ‘triangle’ of working, that participatory research, means that the community helps shape the future. I think Peterborough could be a hub for that kind of innovation, and that goes beyond teaching and learning – it’s creating new knowledge. That again makes Peterborough exciting for life science companies to want to come and invest in this part of the region. The other part of it will be bringing in schoolchildren and members of the public to learn more about what the opportunities are around things like science and engineering – if you want someone to get inspired about being a scientist you start as young as possible, and get them excited about the future.
We have to ask – as someone new to the city, what is your favourite part, so far?
I really like the riverside here – we perhaps don’t make enough of our river yet. But you know, it’s near the Key Theatre, there are the weeping willows, the swans! It is the heart of the city, and there’s still a lot of opportunity around the area as well.
To keep up with the developments at ARU Peterborough and how you can get involved, visit aru.ac.uk/peterborough