ARU Peterborough – a new £30 million university – is set to open its doors to an initial cohort of 2,000 students in September, aiming to improve the skills and employment prospects of people in the local area.
There are just nine months until the university’s first students will enter a brand new campus, which is at the heart of plans to transform the Embankment in Peterborough city centre.
The university is part of Peterborough City Council’s ‘Embankment Masterplan’, which outlines the plans for development on the riverside land to the west of Frank Perkins Parkway.
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University aiming to drive change across the city
ARU Peterborough, which is a partnership between Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, Peterborough City Council and Anglia Ruskin University, will act as a beacon for the transformative change promised by the Masterplan.
The state-of-the-art campus on the city’s waterfront will offer a number of courses, with the prospectus initially focusing on technical subjects such as Building Surveying and Environmental Management.
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The city is a “higher education cold spot” – 32 per cent of people in Peterborough have university degrees, which is significantly lower than the national figure of 43 per cent.
With the university aiming to drive change across the city and the region, CambridgeshireLive spoke to Professor Ross Renton, the principal of ARU Peterborough, about what Peterborough can expect from its new university and how it will alter life in the city.
Professor Renton, who has previously worked at the universities of Worcester and Hertfordshire, said: “This university has no fences or walls around the campus – it is open, we genuinely want it to be permeable.
“I’ve been in various different universities over the years and some are more public than others in terms of being able to access them. This is for the public. You’ll be able to walk to the site and engage with the range of activities that they’re doing.
“Even by the design of the buildings. As you walk past that first teaching building – the ground floor where we have the labs will be all glass around the side, so you can see what’s going on.”
New Living Lab
The campus will be constructed in various stages and will benefit from £20 million funding from the government’s ‘Levelling Up Fund’ for a ‘Living Lab’, located in a second teaching building.
The lab will be managed by the university to provide further teaching facilities as well as an interactive public science facility, providing the permeability for which Professor Renton hopes.
Following the announcement of the funding for the lab in last year’s budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak visited the university construction site in November, stating that it represented “levelling up in action”.
Professor Renton said: “The Living Lab is an opportunity for the public, not necessarily those who are going to end up studying at the university, to engage with research and innovation – with industry and us together – to help solve some of the trickiest problems.
“I’ve got a real passion for our staff and our students to be part of the community. We’re not high on the hill as a university, we’re not in an ivory tower, we’re really out there engaging and being part of the community.
“We’ve been doing that already. I’ve been very involved in the cultural strategy for the city. We’ve been part of the bid process for the Towns Fund, making sure that we’re a place that people want to invest in and I want high quality challenges and jobs coming to the city.”
The Living Lab will form the basis of a University Cultural Quarter, which will host events and exhibitions – including ‘festivals of ideas’, immersive displays and evening classes.
Professor Renton says that the Cultural Quarter emphasises how the university represents long-term thinking for Peterborough, adding: “The university quarter is part of that placemaking.
“How can we ensure that people who want to come and be part of this city stay in this city? We’re part of making it a really vibrant and interesting place to be.”
Avoiding the ‘town and gown’ divide
Though the university comes with grand ambitions for Peterborough, it will undeniably change the city. As well as bringing many cultural and economic benefits, the presence of thousands of students can result in friction with local residents – the divide known as ‘town and gown’.
Avoiding such a scenario is key to Professor Renton, who cites the ‘permeable’ campus being open to all and the Cultural Quarter as offering benefits for all residents – whether they are students or not – and as ways to foster good relations.
He adds: “I don’t want there to be a divide. Engagement is a big part of that – being out in the community but also bringing people on to campus. I’ve said this a lot but it’s heartfelt – it’s not our university – it genuinely isn’t – it is Peterborough and the wider region’s university.
“We want it to be successful and continue to expand – it will do that long after I’ve retired – it will be up there with the cathedral in terms of a constant in the city and something that’s thinking forward for it.
“In anything that we develop, I want to make sure that it’s open to community, that the community can use it and I’m sure longer term we will be thinking about sports facilities and other elements of arts facilities.
“For that to work, it’s got to be that everyone feels that it’s theirs and they can engage with it. Not just engage, but help shape it. The reason why it’s a living lab is that people shape that.”
Looking to the future and with the desire for ARU Peterborough to be a constant in the city, Professor Renton says expansion is crucial, staying: “One, two or three buildings aren’t enough.
“If you want to build a university, it’s got to have vision and aspiration.
“I often use Warwick and other institutions as an example. If 50 years ago, you turned around to them and constrained the amount of development that they could do on that site then you wouldn’t have the universities there today.”
“At the same time, it needs to be a really nice environment to be a student and a staff member and for the community, so having nice gardens and environments that people can be in – external spaces that are welcoming – it’s part of the permeability.
“We need to make sure that that is the case as well.
“That’s my goal and I know that there will be various other aspirations about the Embankment and other sites in the city, but we’ve got the ambition for the university as a city.”
“We have high aspirations for the university in the heart of Peterborough and Peterborough has high aspirations for its university, as it should do.”
“I feel like this is one of the most exciting developments in education in the country at the moment – I’ve little doubt about it. The momentum around it is impactful.”
ARU Peterborough is currently taking applications for September 2022. You can browse courses by clicking here.
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