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Interview: Keith Straughan interim dean, University College, Milton Keynes

16 November 2012

'We open next autumn; so my days are spent in endless meetings'

It was a long-standing ambition of Milton Keynes to have its own university. It's 50 years since the founding fathers wrote their initial wish-list, and bid to host the Open University. But the OU wasn't the university that they imagined - outward-looking and increasingly international in its outlook - proud though they were of what it achieved. They really wanted a local place for local leadership.

They quickly realised that people left Milton Keynes to go to university, as young people do everywhere; they mostly don't go back to their home town. So there was a skills drain, and they were having to import talent. There were gaps in the profile of the city.

Knowledge-rich businesses flourish most when they have a local research-led university to sustain them. Universities are well known to contribute hugely to the cultural environment; from a purely economic argument, they're well known to bring capital value into the local community.

University College will try to fit with the Milton Keynes ethos with clear values - around openness, and partnership, and a fierce ambition for excellence and innovation. It will be part of the University of Bedfordshire, but with a distinct branding to fit the MK context and opportunities.

It will have a particular initial focus on engineering, technology, and business, to cohere with the needs of the thriving Milton Keynes knowledge economy, but the breadth of provision will grow over time. And it will have a clear research and enterprise agenda.

We open next autumn; so my days are spent in endless meetings: planning meetings and strategy meetings; lots of meetings with stakeholders, business, the broader Milton Keynes community; a lot of research meetings. . . Meetings seem to dominate. When do I get a chance to sit and do the research for myself? I have to live that out through Ph.D. students increasingly, which is often the case for senior academics.

It sounds dull, but this is about co-creating with the local community, and it's remarkably exciting. There's huge passion and commitment within Milton Keynes to establish this university presence.

There's a huge debate raging about higher education as a public good. Whatever your view of politics, it's undisputed that major economies worldwide are investing substantially in higher education.

Undergraduates here will pay the same as at the University of Bedford. That's currently between £9000 and £6000. But it's a fast-changing environment.

Anyone should go to university who has the capacity to benefit from the transformative experience of a rigorous engagement with the subject.

I worry about under-investment by the state. Education is both a public good and a private good. Students benefit hugely from their education, but clearly the public benefits hugely. And, wherever you stand, instead of transferring the burden of cost from public purse to students, the new fees don't make up for the amount of government money taken out of the system. Universities are all now running at a deficit; so they are going to have to become a lot smarter, find new revenue schemes, business partnerships, overseas students.

The new border-control mechanisms are sending out difficult messages internationally. It's a very uncertain time in higher education.

We will revisit "The Idea of a University" for the 21st century. Perhaps a 21st-century revision of the civic university. Cloud university? This was the concept that came out of an attempt to say are there different ways to build a university structure, thinking around the fact that, for example, in Milton Keynes, the Open University has a really interesting campus with a fantastic library - but with hardly any students using it.

We could offer services without necessarily owning all the resources. A similar model underpins cloud computing (the name was borrowed from that), but it's difficult to implement in practice. There are benefits in cost and flexibility from it, but it's still something to test.

Modern technology can really help, because the concept of a lecture is not always the most effective way to bring the context and knowledge base to a student. That exchange of education can sometimes be really effective done with iPads and iPhones; but it can't be, and ought not to be, a replacement for bringing students into the presence of distinguished academics who make a subject come to life for them. So we are thinking of ways to bring those things together.

It's challenging when you're trying to time-slice your learning and thinking, doing that alongside family and work, and so on. There are particular challenges for students who, for financial or other reasons, find it difficult to go away to university and don't have the same degree of immersion that students had in the past, or those who work part-time while holding down paid employment.

We need a diverse mix of teaching. We're absolutely committed to the experiential side of education, and we want a really effective tutorial system, so students have an engagement with a dedicated tutor. And I would love to find realistic ways to make small-group teaching effective. But it's remarkably challenging. Very few universities beyond Oxbridge manage to make that available, because they have endowed wealth.

It's appropriate to have curriculum reform. We have over-specialisation too soon. I like the International Baccalaureate, and I'm encouraged by the emerging English Bacc, which is trying to carry on some of those features to try to broaden people, and insist that people engage with science and humanities a little longer.

We're not thinking of a traditional university campus, but would really like something deeply embedded in the city, with strong interaction with business and enterprise, perhaps with some parts co-located in corporate headquarters, and perhaps sharing facilities.

We're currently securing premises for the first phase, using temporary accommodation at the moment, but we think we've found our preferred location in the centre of Milton Keynes for our initial phase, and also identified some greenfield sites where much more long term and expansive possibilities lie. Unlike most English cities, Milton Keynes still has huge expansion potential; so it's an extremely good place to be doing it.

My experience of university was fantastic - a demanding, rigorous intellectual immersion in pure physics, and then, later, medical imaging. I followed a very "trad" all-science route; so, when I had the chance to study theology at Cambridge, I was delighted to develop a different intellectual toolkit. It would have been good to have had that breadth earlier.

When I saw my job advertised, I was at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge. To my shame, I said, "Great job - shame it's in Milton Keynes." We'd lived in Berkhamstead for a while, and Abbots Langley; so we'd occasionally visited to go shopping, but I knew little beyond the concrete-cow stereotypes; but actually we've really fallen for the city, as do many people who come in. People become very proud of it.

I speak with the zeal of the new convert. We've been here four years now, and found it a great place as a family.

My priesthood is an integral part of who I am, and therefore who I am as a leader. I'm licensed to the whole diocese rather than one particular church. We don't have a full-blown chaplaincy yet, though we will have. I mostly work in the city-centre Ecumenical Church of Christ the Cornerstone.

I pray most often for wisdom.

My wife and children are the love of my life. I'd like to be remembered for being a good husband and dad, and a half-decent prof. I'm happiest over a family dinner with a decent Burgundy.

As a child, I wanted to be a BBC TV cameraman. The most important choice I made was to go to university. I do regret turning down jobs overseas - and not being able to play an instrument.

I love to have holidays in Italy, especially Tuscany.

Waves crashing on a Mediterranean beach are my favourite sound - then gently ebbing in and out. Yes, I know other seas crash louder. I find the sound of water moving, whether it's a waterfall or a gurgling brook or whatever.

Biographies have inspired me, as well as the character of Josh in The West Wing; and the priest-theologian Dan Hardy.

I like the Johannine corpus best of all the biblical books. I least like Leviticus.

Intellectual dishonesty makes me angry.

I'd like to be locked in a church with Leonardo da Vinci. He's a fascinating polymath who could keep me excited by ideas across the spectrum of thought for many hours, and could maybe even knock up a wall-painting if we got bored.

The Revd Professor Keith Straughan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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