ARU Peterborough: Fens aren’t what they used to be

The UK’s newest university has been two decades in the making. With phase one of ARU Peterborough’s purpose-built campus nearing completion, Cris Warren catches up with newly appointed principal Ross Renton to hear how its leadership team intends to fill the Fens with locally grown experts

Peterborough has all the prerequisites needed for a thriving university city: booming manufacturing, digital and engineering sectors, a historic cathedral, a new arts centre, fantastic commuter links, even a TK Maxx. All that’s missing is an actual university.

That’s all set to change when ARU Peterborough opens its doors in September 2022.

Meteorologically wise, Peterborough is one of the sunniest places to live in the UK.

Now it looks like the Cambridgeshire city is set to bask in some pretty hot economic rays, too.

Back in 2015, a report by global management consultants McKinsey painted Peterborough as picture of business health.

It’s the fastest growing city by population, has the fastest digital network, the second fastest private sector jobs growth, and an economy expected to grow by 40% by 2025 to £8.7bn GDP.

All that has been driven by a rapid regeneration of the city including a £160m development that will bring new shopping facilities and restaurants to the more unedifying quarters of the city centre, and a £120m riverside apartment scheme.

It’s quite the renaissance for the city.

And there’s a final brushstroke to come in 2022, with the launch of its very own university.

The project has been in development for over two decades; driven by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, in collaboration with Peterborough City Council and, until it becomes fully independent, Anglia Ruskin University.

And not a moment too soon.

The flip side of being identified as one of the fastest-growing cities in the UK is the fact that Peterborough has long languished in the bottom 10% of the UK’s skills levels. That, in turn, has forced new and established businesses alike to recruit talent from outside the area.

Until now, the nearest universities have been Cambridge and Leicester – leading Peterborough to be characterised as an HE ‘cold-spot’.

The new ARU Peterborough site, before construction began


Economic recovery

That should all change come September 2022.

“I think it’s one of the most exciting things happening in higher education in the UK right now. It’s a brand-new institution, completely designed to be in the
heart of the city, to grow with the city and enable the region,” enthuses Professor Ross Renton, recently named inaugural principal of ARU Peterborough,
the £30m establishment,“the region has been crying out for”.

When it opens, ARU Peterborough will have a tailor-made curriculum to fit, among others, the digital and agri-tech industries swarming around the city’s honeypot.

“Peterborough’s economic recovery after lockdown is likely to be one of the fastest among UK cities – there’s already so much growth here and it’s attracting companies,” says Renton, who comes to the post fresh from being senior pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Worcester. “But what they need is skilled workers, people with the right qualifications for the modern economy – that image of the region being a qualifications cold-spot isn’t unwarranted.”

The new ARU Peterborough site, before construction began


Employment-led model

It’s time that reputation was thawed out.

“For such a large and growing population, the progression into higher education locally has been very poor and that, of course, has had a knock-on effect for the economy” – Professor Ross Renton, principal ARU Peterborough

“For such a large and growing population, the progression into higher education locally has been very poor and that, of course, has had a knock-on effect for the economy. So our focus is entirely on increasing the skills and expertise levels of the communities locally.”

To that end, the curriculum being designed and signed off across the four faculties – business and entrepreneurship, creative digital arts and science, agriculture and sustainability, and health and social care – mixes more traditional degrees like nursing and midwifery with qualifications for industries that are barely out of their nappies.

“Our data and analytical science degrees will train people with the skills that companies need to be able to implement things like 5G and AI systems in the workplace and also for mobile games development in the creative industries. In engineering there’s a real focus on mechatronics and agri-tech as well as food production.”

Over 100 companies have helped with the development of the curriculum to create what Renton describes as a ‘nuts and bolts’ employment-led model.

In some cases, those industries will be extensions of the campus. “They’ll be learning spaces in themselves, so students are in a live situation working with manufacturers such as Oatly and McCormick (the makers of the oat-based milk alternative and US-owned spice manufacturers, both major Peterborough industrial concerns) and taking on real-life technical and engineering through challenges using facilities and equipment they’ll use themselves when they graduate into those industries.”

Phase one of the university is well under construction, readying for next September’s first 2,000 students. “By 2030 we’re looking at 12,500, by which time phase two construction will be finished and we’ll have three teaching buildings and two for research and development.”

Environmental sustainability for the future is key to the campus. Partner Anglia Ruskin University is home to the Institute of Global Sustainability which has had a hand in consulting how to keep the new university fit for the future. Among the features of the first building are a green roof to increase biodiversity and control rainwater run-off rates along with photovoltaic panels to generate electricity from sunshine.

Current and future student cohorts are increasingly making an institute’s green record part of their decision to study there. The issue is close to Renton’s heart. His previous university, Worcester, won the prestigious Green Gown Sustainability Institution of the Year award in 2019 and now sustainability modules have been embedded into ARUP’s curriculum.

“No matter what course they’re taking, students will be engaging with sustainability issues. It’s something that we know they want and it’s making sure that we deliver that and that they are part of the process all the way through. So in our second phase teaching building, we’re working on a concept of a ‘living lab’, which will engage the community in sustainability issues and get students to work with them in an almost peer-to-peer experience.”

Renton thinks that universities don’t make the best use of their buildings when they’re not being used for teaching. “I want to make sure that our campus is effective and busy from the morning to the evening and at weekends. There’s nothing worse, I think, than a building sitting idle so, certainly in teaching spaces, we’ll be finding ways to hand it back to the community at large in downtime, really get the most efficiency out of it.”

Mental health provision is also set to be a priority for future students. ARUP is collaborating with Peterborough-based Citizens UK to work out a pastoral care system that runs through the curriculum.

“We want a supportive environment where we can help everyone – staff and students alike – manage their wellbeing. I think, for students especially, it helps to make them more employable. Because once you go into the workplace, your mental wellbeing doesn’t change or stop – I think it’s absolutely crucial for a supportive, cooperative learning environment.”

In terms of the wider benefit to the city, some 31,000 jobs are expected to be created in servicing the university by 2035.

But Renton predicts ARUP will be an almost immediately transformative experience for the Cambridgeshire city when the campus gates swing open in 2022.

An artist’s impression of the completed ARU Peterborough campus


For, and into, the city

Except there won’t be any gates.

“It’s a university for Peterborough, rather than just of – so it’s been deliberately designed without walls around it or barriers, or gates” – Professor Ross Renton, principal ARU Peterborough

“It’s a university for Peterborough, rather than just of,” beams the prof, “so it’s been deliberately designed without walls around it or barriers, or gates. Our specialist teaching areas and our labs are all glass. We want people to look in and see what’s going on as they’re walking past. I think in terms of a catch-all slugline or an ethos for the university, well, that’s something that will develop over time, as our story grows, but the one fundamental is that we – and, you know, there’s a big team behind all of this – really have pledged to have a culture of inclusivity, a demonstrable feeling of civic ownership.”

The location in the centre of Peterborough is no coincidence, then. “The vision is for ARUP to grow into the city, rather than away from it.

I think that building a university quarter of the city makes it really front and centre for local people to see it, be proud of it and become part of it – because that’s the point, we want to attract people from the region who, in the past, might not have had the opportunity to even consider higher education.”

Starting a university from scratch is no mean feat especially with stakeholders from every sector of the city. “There’s the very practical part of making sure that we’ll be open on time and the curriculum’s available for people to use, and then, externally it’s all about engaging with the community, engaging with businesses, getting them to understand and trust what we’re doing.”

But Renton genuinely appears to be enjoying the experience. He certainly has the chops for it.

His experience has included being a designated widening participation expert for the Office for Students, and vice-chair of the Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE). He’s also a visiting professor at the Open University, and, prior to his stewardship of Worcester, was dean of students at the University of Hertfordshire.

“I think it’s one of these things where there’s a range of different tasks and skills you need to support this kind of project. It’s about finding and keeping the balance.”

The question of whether he’s had any sleepless nights so far makes him chuckle, albeit a little nervously. “Not so far, but there is definitely a ‘learning curve’ element. I do see it as a great challenge but, it’s important to say, I’m not on my own, there’s a fantastic team working towards this.”

It’s the uniqueness of the challenge that Renton clearly relishes. “It’s quite different from what most people will be doing in higher education at the moment. There aren’t many examples of this kind of civic university project, especially with this diverse role and engagement with so many different stakeholders.”

You might also like: New university ARU Peterborough partners with Anglia Ruskin

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