An independent university for Peterborough

In just a few years, University Centre Peterborough (UCP) will develop into an independent university, capable of awarding its own degrees and designing its own courses. But what does it mean for the city – its employers, its prospective students, its economy? How is it different from what the University Centre Peterborough already offers – and what challenges need to be faced before it becomes a reality? Toby Venables talks to Terry Jones, Principal and CEO of Peterborough Regional College, who is also board member of UCP and a leading figure behind the university project

An independent university for Peterborough has been a topic of discussion for several years now, but recently things have started to gather momentum. Can you sum up the current state of play?
One of the features of this project is that it’s no one organisation. It’s quite a few of them! It’s all about teamwork and partnerships. University Centre Peterborough (UCP) is a partnership between Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and Peterborough Regional College (PRC), and we’ve got about 750 students studying full-time and part-time degrees. The university centre already has a wide portfolio of courses – about 23 different subjects – with great results, and great feedback from students. We’ve already got a thriving academic community delivering higher education in the heart of Peterborough. We’re not the only ones doing it, because ARU are also delivering higher education in the healthcare sector at Guild House. But the key thing is – and this is what people sometimes lose sight of – an independent university can’t just be created by putting up a building and having a university sign on the gate. What you’ve got to have is a thriving, selfcritical academic community. That’s what a university is; the buildings are almost an afterthought. You have to grow that community first – students, staff, subject areas, research that is rigorous and subject to external review – and that takes a long time.

Does it confuse people, that there is already a university centre here where students can study for a degree but which is not ‘the independent university’?
It’s very common now to have a higher education centre in partnership with a further education college, and they have been very, very successful at widening access to degrees – much more so, actually, than traditional universities. It’s become a very common model in the last few years, and a very successful one. At the moment we cannot call UCP the ‘University of Peterborough’ because the degrees themselves are currently awarded by Anglia Ruskin University. That really is the key – we need to get degree-awarding powers so that the independent university can form.

What does it mean to be able to award your own degrees, and why is it so significant?
At the moment, if you’re a student studying at UCP, your degree is awarded by Anglia Ruskin, who have a great track record in higher education. That degree really counts for something; its national and international reputation is very high. For an independent university to get to that stage, it has to demonstrate a track record. That’s what UCP has been doing – starting to establish that track record. And it’s important because when we do gain degree-awarding powers, we will be able to decide on the degree courses that we have, how to adapt them over the coming years and how to develop them so they meet the needs of the city and the wider region, through consultation with the employers we work with.

Universities are not usually regarded as being as vocationally driven as further education colleges. As far as employers are concerned, what is the practical difference between the new offer and what is already offered?
With a vocational offering, you’re essentially preparing people for jobs, teaching skills and special competencies that allow them to fulfil those roles. A university is far more about equipping people in the knowledge economy, teaching them how to think, how to analyse and contextualise what they’ve learned and apply it in a new situation. That’s not just about producing people who then go directly into work, because there’s a symbiotic relationship between advanced industries and universities in the field of research as well. For example, if you look at something that this region is really famous for – progress in biotech – there’s a huge emphasis on research work done in partnership with universities, as well as graduates who are sufficiently skilled and knowledgeable to go into those industries. Ultimately, of course, this is not just about creating higher education in Peterborough for the people who live here and nearby – we’re creating a world-class institution that will draw in students from everywhere else. We mustn’t forget that education is a massive export for the UK, drawing in money from outside the EU as well as within it, and we hope that a university for Peterborough will attract people from all over the country and all over the world.

UK universities depend heavily on international and EU students and have been thrown into uncertainty by the outcome of the EU referendum. Brexit is still the great unknown, but what effect is Brexit likely to have on student numbers?
Across the UK, there has been a downturn in university applications. Some of that has been attributed to Brexit, and some to wider factors – increased tuition fees, for example. In many ways it’s easier for us as an institution that is growing, because we aren’t reliant on international students. EU students can still get access to student loans and funding for undergraduate courses at UCP which start in September 2017 and 2018, even if the course concludes after the UK’s exit from the EU.

So, the fact that you are setting up now is actually an advantage?
I think there’s a distinct advantage for all sorts of reasons, being a new arrival in the market place, if we can call it that. We don’t have a huge bureaucracy that has to change direction. It can be difficult for large universities to change the way they work, but as a relatively small institution that is growing, we can grow in a different direction. In a way, the more turbulent the higher education landscape is, the easier it is for institutions like us to prepare for the future.

You have hinted at there being an emphasis on local student recruitment. If the university helps keep graduates within the city, do new businesses and new employers naturally follow?
I do think that most universities go through a growth phase where they attract predominantly local students, then they become much more outward in their recruitment. I also think that when large companies – especially high tech companies – look at moving to a new area, one of the fundamental questions they ask is ‘can we recruit suitably qualified and educated people in this area, and keep the supply going?’ Therefore, the absence of a university may prevent them coming. It’s also often forgotten that you may have small- to medium-sized enterprises that are growing, and their growth can be inhibited if they can’t recruit the right people, and they may then move away. Therefore, everything points to a large, thriving, independent higher education institution being key to Peterborough’s economic growth.

Does this mean Peterborough could get some business that might otherwise have gone to Cambridge?
This isn’t about rivalry – and we would be foolish to try and compete on equal terms with established providers. What we need to do is flow into the spaces between them, and leverage what is unique and world-class about Peterborough – and there are so many things to shout about. For example, we do an archaeology degree. We are right next to Must Farm and Flag Fen and have access to those world-class finds. This is the sort of thing we need to grow and develop. It’s not about competition, either. Universities now are increasingly collaborative. Every university connects with other institutions, where they are helping each other. This is especially the case with us and Anglia Ruskin, and we fully intend to establish ongoing pathways between them and our university. So instead of saying ‘Well, Anglia Ruskin does this – let’s see if we can do something to compete with them…’ it’s about thinking how the two institutions can be symbiotic in their relationship. We also don’t want to be a replicating university. We don’t want to look at what someone else does and say ‘You know what? We can also do that…’ When trying to attract business, what we and others such as Opportunity Peterborough are saying is not: ‘We want businesses that are going to come here and do what they would do down the road, but just for lower rent…’ We’ve got a bit more ambition! We’ve got a thriving, multicultural community here that we’re not even beginning to tap into, but when we have our higher education offering, we will really start to motor.

What is the process by which the university body is created, and who will become that university?
We’ve established a governance board at the moment which is made up of two kinds of people. There are the people who are delivering higher education at the moment – University Centre Peterborough and its partners. The other people are those who want to be involved in the project, and who we can’t really imagine not being involved – the local authority, whose help we obviously need, there’s Opportunity Peterborough, and the Local Enterprise Partnership, who have been helping to fund us for our application for degree awarding powers. So, what you have is a coalition of the willing, and that’s good enough at the moment to govern the project as it expands. But in future, that needs to migrate into an entity which will run the university itself. The interesting thing is that the bulk of the people are already there, so if I were to put that question – ‘who will be the university of Peterborough?’ – to a lecturer at UCP, or a student at UCP starting this September on a three-year course, they’d say ‘Well, it’s us!’ They will transfer across. Clearly there will be governors and the normal sort of structure that you have in a university, and we’ll have to see who fulfils those roles, but it will emerge as time goes on. In a way it would be wrong to define this too early, because there may be private investment in the university, and I’m sure central government would want us to look really closely at that, because it can reduce the burden on them to get things going. Universities are self-sustaining once up and running; they generate income and they reinvest in themselves, but to get them going in the first place they need grant funding. The drawing together of a coalition of the willing, some of whom are willing to invest, is very important at the start.

What is the timescale for the creation of the new institution?
We intend to submit our application for degreeawarding powers towards the end of this year. We’ll be considered in the spring window, we hope, and then that could lead to degree-awarding powers as early as 2019. Our assumption for moving into the new-build campus is from 2022. Clearly there are lots of dependencies between here and those dates, but those dates are achievable. We’re hoping to get close to 3,000 students by 2022 – that’s from our current level of 750. Ultimately, by 2035, we’re looking at an institution of 12,500 students. A proportion of those, of course, will already be living in the region.

What is the most important message you feel needs to be communicated about the new university?
The most important thing is that it is the University Centre Peterborough that is going to become the independent university. It’s not some brand new thing that is going to come out of a wrapper and be popped down in a green field somewhere in Peterborough, it’s the students, the lecturers, the managers, the support staff of UCP. That is what is going to grow – that independent, thriving, selfcritical academic community. And we have that. The other thing is that this project is a partnership. There is no way that our colleagues at Anglia Ruskin and ourselves alone could grow the university to the point where it could be independent quickly enough to satisfy the ambitions. Therefore, we needed a team to work on this from every direction. I don’t think the city leadership, if I can use that term, has ever been more united on a single project than it feels like it is at the moment. From the local authority, to schools that we talked to, businesses that we consulted, leading education providers, the combined authority who had the money for the university factored in from the outset, to the Local Enterprise Partnership… We’re all around the same table, pushing in the same direction. Of course there will be challenges and difficult decisions to make – about which site, how we invest and much more besides – but I think we’re set fair to make a massive difference.

University Project Team Leader
‘There have been several reports regarding possible locations for the university campus – but clearly there is a lot of work to do to get to the planners’ decisions, and we’ve agreed to produce a business plan to be signed off by the combined authority by the end of December. ‘What we can say for certain is that it will be in the city centre. All the evidence is that in order to stimulate the local economy, putting the university in a city centre is the way forward – and you can look at various examples which demonstrate that. If you look at any university with a city centre campus, the presence of that has had a significant impact on the city centre daytime and night-time economy.’

TDAP (Taught Degree Awarding Powers) Project Co-ordinator, UCP
‘Part of the scrutiny that we are subject to in our bid to have degree-awarding powers is our ability to establish courses with integrity. Potential courses go through a validation process, and we have to demonstrate that any courses or new programmes that we develop are of significant value but are also led by what employers need, and over the next year or two we’ll be doing extensive research into what prospective students want. ‘We are determined to provide a higher education offer that attracts that first generation of students to university. We know that there is a level of frustration with what is on offer within the regional locality. What we want our university to be is a place that offers possibilities for those prospective students. ‘With regard to a particular specialism, I think it would be a bit early for us to say definitely what it will be, but we do have an overarching picture of what is significant here, which is made up of areas such as engineering, business and education. We have to see how that picture develops, but what we know for sure is that this will include both undergraduate and postgraduate options.’

Leader of Peterborough City Council and Member of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority
‘Peterborough is the largest city in the UK without an independent university and it’s been an ambition of the city to bring a university here for about six to seven years. ‘In terms of what it will mean for the city’s economy, let me just throw you some statistics, based on universities of a similar size that have been set up elsewhere. A university of this size could have an economic impact of £244m in the city, and £420m in the area as a whole. It would directly provide around 1,100 jobs – but other indirect jobs created as a result of it could number another 3,000. Students spend an average of about £9,000 a year, so the spend in the city would go up by about £112.5m when we’re well underway. Every one million pounds of output generated by the university will see £1.35m generated in other sectors. So it has a huge economic benefit. Statistics also show that in the next ten years Peterborough could lose about 5,000 of its traditional jobs, so the city also desperately needs to upskill its workforce. ‘The new Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is funding the first stages. The Local Enterprise Partnership put in £900,000 to start the process, and the combined authority recently approved a two-stage bid of £6.3m to take us to stage two. Stage two sets everything up so we can start to build. ‘In terms of where it will be, all potential sites for the university campus are owned by the city council. While the decision hasn’t been made, there’s really only one in the running – I think if you were a betting man you’d go for the north Embankment. It’s near the city centre, and near the Regional Pool. It’s also a prestigious site – and if you want to attract people to Peterborough you have to have a good offer.’

Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority
‘If the university in Peterborough is clever it will train people in specific areas that are beneficial to the city of Peterborough. But universities are huge drivers of the local economy in other ways. If you build a university in the centre of a city it will support the nighttime economy. The new university is likely to have a view of the cathedral, which will help to promote the city to parents bringing their children to see the university – these things are all important. ‘The investment into the university will be around £60m, which some people may baulk at, but it’s investment into the city’s future. If you love where you’re from and you can be educated there too, then you will be more likely to remain there rather than chase the jobs elsewhere.’

Chief Executive of Opportunity Peterborough
‘There’s a lot that already marks Peterborough out as a fantastic investment location: gigabit connectivity, its proximity to London, affordable commercial spaces and its world class businesses. With additional higher education facilities, Peterborough and its businesses will have better access to a full range of talent, from school leavers that want to be taught specific trades and skills, to groups of graduates and post-graduates that will have specialist skills across a variety of sectors and disciplines. ‘What a university would also do for us when we’re talking to potential investors is offer more routes to research and innovation in Peterborough. National statistics show the city already consistently achieves some of the highest numbers of patents registered per head of population in the country but a university would really enhance this by giving companies greater access to expertise and equipment for research and development. If a company feels like they can get the skills support they need locally then there’s much more impetus to come and stay in Peterborough. ‘We should remember we already have a university presence in the city and the ongoing business engagement work that University Centre Peterborough is doing is really important. Of course it’s vital for students to access the courses they’re interested in, but it’s also important for local companies to have relevant development opportunities for their staff and the chance to shape the future curriculum around their sector’s needs. Peterborough companies have a long tradition of investing in their workforce, often at higher rates than the rest of the UK and an enhanced university offer just adds to that opportunity.’

1. Their modern £10 million university centre campus was opened in November 2009.
2. There is purpose built student accommodation available for students as the university centre attracts students from across the UK.
3. The majority of courses are studied as two full days per week.
4. A typical course size is under 30 students and smaller class sizes mean lecturers can offer individual and group tutorials for support.
5. Tuition fees are £1,500 lower per year compared to many other universities.
6. Every full-time undergraduate student receives a £500 cash bursary at the end of every year.
7. 100% of students on the computing and sports coaching degrees in 2015/16 were employed in jobs related to the course before or within six months of graduation.
8. One in three students are mature students (over 21 years of age).
9. 80% of students on the business management degree in 2015/16 achieved a first class or 2:1 degree.
10. Graduates get the opportunity to attend a graduation ceremony at Peterborough Cathedral.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.

Register an Account