For all the talk of disruptive technologies, some aspects of higher education remain wonderfully stable. Take the continuing civic interest in founding universities. Milton Keynes Council has set up a commission to report on a vision for its future where a key part, a ‘big project’, is a new university.
The commission, chaired by Sir Peter Gregson – VC at nearby Cranfield (and former VC at Queen’s Belfast), suggests the founding of a ‘substantial’ university (as opposed to the Open University or the succession of University Centres that the city has had). This university will be different:
MK:IT will be the first university anywhere designed as a response to the challenges facing cities today and in the future – a radically different approach to how cities, businesses and higher education can develop and grow together. Thus, MK:IT’s mission will be to promote research, teaching and practice that provide realistic solutions to the problems facing fast-growing cities. These include moving people and things around without congestion or pollution, sustaining healthy inclusive communities, encouraging enterprise and creativity and designing human spaces for 21st century working and living.
Furthermore, the university will be very different because it will be focused on four ‘platforms’ – as shown in this diagram:
For all its difference, the university can’t escape the classical portico that’s framed universities – at least since 1826 when UCL marked its modernity with an emphatic return to classical architecture. Maybe this is intended as a reassurance, however, as the next diagram shows that the portfolio will be made up of just about every higher education fad in current circulation:
No doubt, if the project goes forward, some of these will fall by the wayside. The cynic will note that if Milton Keynes really does want to retain more of its young people who go off to university elsewhere, then they’ll need to end up offering the single honours degrees that they want to do.
What is encouraging, is that the formation of a university is still seen as one of the best things that an aspirational town or city can do. This has been the spur to the development of universities throughout the ages; from medieval communes in Italy, to frontier states in America, through to Victorian industrial cities. When government funding was available, the UK has run competitions between communities to get a university – the UGC ran an exercise in the early 1960s and in this century we have had waves of bidding for support for university centres. As we’ve noted this year, government has been citing civic initiatives in Suffolk and Hereford as among their ‘challenger institutions’.
So, good luck to Milton Keynes. It’s interesting to see their commission strike out for a new direction in higher education. They could, of course, just opt to entice an existing provider to move there. That’s an approach that the city has tried before…