Profile: Sir Peter Gregson, vice-chancellor of Cranfield University

James Higgins talks to Sir Peter Gregson, vice-chancellor of Cranfield University, on the ‘living laboratory’, Brexit and the skills gap

Before our interview commences properly, I sit talking to Sir Peter Gregson about University Business magazine and life working in publishing.

Gregson, who has led Cranfield University – the specialist postgraduate university in Bedfordshire – for over six years, is no stranger to the interviewee chair. It is often the way in interviews that the most interesting snippets and details pop up when conversation is casual, and Gregson proves no different. In this case, it was not an exclusive lead, but a rather surprising fact about the unassuming 62-year-old from Scotland…

While vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, Gregson presented Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson with an honorary degree in New York in 2009; the moment was captured by a photograph that made its way to the front cover of Hello magazine. It could well be the first time our title and the infamous gossip magazine have ever overlapped.

Future of education and training

I start by asking Sir Peter Gregson about the ‘skills gap’ – the distance growing between the workforce and the technological demands of the UK economy. The UK general election manifestos seemed to make reference to this issue problem, tied up with the UK’s productivity gap (which lags behind European competitors) and the political divide opening up between the ‘university-educated’ and those that are not. Labour spoke of education as a lifelong ‘escalator’, the Liberal Democrats pitched a ‘skills wallet’ and the Tories offered funding for further education colleges. Remedies or hollow pledges?

In Gregson’s view, better partnerships between educators and industry is what is needed.

“We absolutely believe that such a gap exists. Milton Keynes is an area, 30 minutes from London, where we’re seeing companies relocate to create digital.

We believe there is potential for leading a new specialist, undergraduate model university. We have a special opportunity and a responsibility to close that gap.”

MK:U is the subject of a highly anticipated feasibility study, following which Cranfield will make a final decision on its involvement. The curriculum would be designed by the postgraduate parent university with MK:U staff and industry. Gregson speaks of creating “seamless ladders for progression” across all levels, from Milton Keynes College, to undergraduate and postgraduate level, and onto the world of work.

“I think there has been a lot of attempts in the past to do it, but they’ve been in isolation with the academic institutions alone trying to do things. One of our commitments with MK:U is to have a very seamless engagement with business,” he says.

Cranfield, which is based on a former military air base, has close links with the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces as the academic provider for all technology-led Master’s-level courses. The university’s School of Management has devised an executive MBA programme that now accounts for 10% of all learners gaining support through the apprenticeship levy. Again, Gregson is keen to stress that more involvement with business and industry – with “experiential learning embedded in companies and classrooms” – is the solution. It is the “truly distinctive element” of Cranfield that Gregson presently feels is lacking in the undergraduate landscape. Gregson says standard apprenticeships and accelerated degrees could all be the key.

University partnerships

Underpinning so many of these new ways of learning are, in Gregson’s opinion, business partnerships. The university opened an Aerospace Integration Research Centre, a joint £35m-pound project with funding from the university and government, plus funds leveraged from Rolls-Royce and Airbus. Cranfield works closely with regulators to ensure it can offer not just low-technology readiness level research, but high-technology readiness level research that can, in Gregson’s words, “be translated straight out into the production lines, say, of Airbus, fully accredited for health and safety purposes to the commercial standards”.

Gregson says developing these levels of integration is tricky and relies on staff maintaining not just academic, but professional and corporate, standards, too. But maintaining them is a priority – it is the draw for students, a “seamless transition” into a leading job at a leading company, postgraduation.

The university is helping to develop the UK’s first remote digital air traffic control centre and a beyond-line-of-sight experimentation corridor for drones.

The university is also developing a multi-user environment for autonomous vehicle innovation (MUEAVI), which is helping to turn the university into a living laboratory.

Climate targets

On the climate, Gregson says the university has “bound to set ourselves challenging targets each year”.

The university set a target of reducing 2005 carbon emissions levels (Scope 1 and 2) by 50% by 2020. Cranfield has also reduced its landfill and now around 70% of all waste is recycled – but their ambition is to segregate more material on site.

Despite these targets, the university’s most recent Annual Environmental Report for 2017 to 2018 confirms the university is behind its expectations in a number of key areas. Most significantly, in reducing those direct emissions from energy and fuel use. With two years to go, the university is about two-thirds of the way to its target.

I ask Gregson how easy is it to achieve the zero-carbon campus. “Not at all easy,” Gregson admits, “but it’s something that we take very seriously. We have Green Gown awards within the university.

We can play our own small role, and make sure that we instil that culture into our students, and we do our best to do that. But we’ve still got an awful long way to go.”

The university is hosting a major conference on the aviation sector at the end of this year, an example of what Gregson describes as Cranfield’s “convening power”. The vice-chancellor says his university can help by “leading by example” and help operators “identify what changes in technology, what changes in the business model of the aviation sector” could help reduce environmental damage.

We are global organisations and I state categorically that Cranfield will remain global

The Future

Gregson is unwilling to be drawn on Brexit and speaks of the importance of international partnerships “around the world”. He says UK universities have “been here for many years and adapt to change extremely well”. He adds: “We are global organisations and I state categorically that Cranfield will remain global.”

He says the priority is uncertainty for staff and students which he wants to see resolved soon. “Deepening our partnerships in different parts of the world is a fundamental priority,” Gregson says in response to my probes for more information.

The landscape is shifting, but Gregson seems confident in the sector’s ability to emerge unscathed.

He is positive too on the question of government policy, which he says is “demonstrably working”.

Gregson comments: “At the end of the day, government is clearly providing an important platform. And in the UK, the mixture of that environment, together with the autonomous nature of our universities, is actually something that is the envy of the rest of the world. That’s something – that’s an important partnership that needs to be fostered.” 

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