Peterborough will ‘thrive’ with its new university, principal pledges

Uprooting your family during a global pandemic is no easy task, but for Ross Renton the aggro is worth it in order to oversee the new Peterborough university project.

Monday, 22nd March 2021, 6:00 am

The principal at Anglia Ruskin University Peterborough began his new role on February 15 after leaving the University of Worcester where he was senior pro-Vice Chancellor, and the first month has been a constant stream of virtual meetings (100 and counting) as well as visits to see how the scheme is developing.

So while he may not have met many of his new colleagues in person there is at least the sight of building works at the campus to warm the Glaswegian’s heart with hoardings now up by the Wirrina Car Park.

“It’s starting to become quite real,” Mr Renton reflected in an exclusive interview with the Peterborough Telegraph.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Professor Ross Renton, Principal of ARU Peterborough, at the site of the new university at Bishop's Road. EMN-211203-183203009
Professor Ross Renton, Principal of ARU Peterborough, at the site of the new university at Bishop's Road. EMN-211203-183203009

So, what is it about ARU Peterborough - which is due to open in September 2022 - that made him jump from one cathedral city to another?

“I think Peterborough has huge amounts of potential and quite a lot of ambition as well,” he replied.

“It’s one of the coldest spots in the country for higher education and some of my work in the past has been to make people think of higher education as an option for them.

“More people in Peterborough should be considering it.

Professor Ross Renton, principal of ARU Peterborough, at the site of the new university at Bishop's Road. EMN-211203-183108009

“I think Peterborough will thrive having a university, and it’s a different type of university. It will be very open and very much of the community. One of the things of the design of the building is you will be able to walk into the institution, but also look into the windows into a lab.

“I remember as a kid, as a scientist, absolutely loving to find out what was going on and asking lots of questions.

“It’s an ambitious plan - by 2030 we plan to have 12,500 students. That’s a decent sized institution.”

The technical university is expected to grow from 2,000 students next year through a combination of full-time and part-time courses, as well as degree apprenticeships.

It is due to have five buildings by the Embankment - three for teaching and two for research - and cover a range of topics from computing and games development, education, engineering, health and social care, agri-tech and sports data.

The key to its success will be its partnership with the business community - both companies already based here and others which may seek to re-locate to the city if they believe a talented workforce will be available for recruitment.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Mr Renton’s first month has been largely focused on cultivating those relationships, including a meeting with Caterpillar - the owners of city giant Perkins Engines - a short time before this interview.

“Speaking to companies has absolutely been at the centre of it and making sure that we are on track with our curriculum is another element of it,” he said.

“Then the other part is making sure the building is happening. The first building is all very well and exciting, but for it to be a university it needs to be bigger than that.

“We’re really pushing to start the plans for the second teaching building and really looking at how we can get fantastic facilities there - really good laboratories which students will be able to use.”

Asked what remit he had been given when hired by ARU, he replied: “The key thing was to deliver high quality education for teaching and research in Peterborough. That was the focus of what they were looking to do.

“There’s a real desire to make it distinctive - learning from the pandemic that there are different ways of delivering - and also for it to be co-created with industry so it meets the needs of industries in Peterborough.

“We’ve had 90 companies involved in the design process - that’s massive by any university standard. So there’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement and we want to make sure when students start on a course with us there’s a real clear line of sight into a challenging, rewarding job.

“When you speak to people, no matter what stage of higher education they come into, they want to see what the outcome will be. So having an institution so embedded with industry will make a difference for them.”

While the student number plan might be “ambitious,” Mr Renton believes there will be the demand, particularly among youngsters in Peterborough, while he also wants the university to offer its own hardship fund.

“If we’re able to offer high quality education that gets you a job, people will see a reason for it,” he said.

“I don’t get the sense of a lack of ambition in the city. We’re creating the opportunity, and as long as the opportunity meets the ambition we ought to be successful.”

As for whether having a world-renowned university a short distance away in the south of county is a help or hindrance, Mr Renton replied: “I think it’s only an advantage. We’ve got more than enough young people and those looking to re-train. We’ll be distinctive in what we do.”

The university was given the green light as part of a devolution deal which created the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority which is currently led by metro mayor James Palmer.

The initial intention was for the university to be independent by 2025, however, that date has now been pushed back to 2032 at the earliest.

Asked whether ARU Peterborough may one day become the University of Peterborough, Mr Renton said: “There is a route map for the university, if it wants to in 10 years’ time, to become independent.

“What’s really key for me is we get the bit right about higher education. If we can deliver high quality courses and it’s making a difference in the community, that’s the first priority for us.

“However, there is a route map to be its own institution, whatever it might be called. I think having ARU involved at this stage makes such a big difference - it has so much experience.”