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
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
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
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
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
I love to have holidays in Italy, especially
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