Opening a new university: ARU Peterborough

A new university, a new chapter, a new challenge. James Rolfe, Chief Operating Officer of Anglia Ruskin University, and Professor Ross Renton, Principal of ARU Peterborough, share their vision for the new university, and how it came to fruition.

Opportunities and challenges for ARU Peterborough

Preparing to open a new university in Peterborough has been one of the highlights of our recent successes at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU). It was also a personal opportunity and challenge for us both.

For ARU, it marks the beginning of a new chapter of our life in the city. For Peterborough more widely, it signals a step change in investment in the city and surrounding region.

With long term investment in excess of £100m, and goals to attract 10,000+ students over the life of the project, it is on a scale that will be a game-changer for us all.

Peterborough’s location is ideal. It sits on the cusp of the East Midlands, East Anglia, and the South East. Its road and rail networks are excellent.

There is a wide ranging and very ambitious regeneration programme for the whole city, covering housing, skills, infrastructure, and culture, as well as the University of Peterborough itself.

Even with the challenges the pandemic has brought, it is a place that is undoubtedly undergoing a renaissance that will deliver great benefits to local people, visitors, and businesses for many years to come.

There are many national and international companies in the city – Caterpillar, Perkins Engines, and BASF being probably the most notable – as well as a host of SMEs.

And it is a very diverse city, with many ethnic groups and languages spoken.

But access to and participation in higher level skills has always been relatively low in Peterborough, in the bottom 10% for the UK.

That is a gap that most definitely needs to be plugged if it is to fulfil its full potential and enable all those in the sub-region to make the most of the opportunities available. It has been an ambition of the city for over 40 years. Many political and civic leaders have put their support, leadership, personal capital, and resources behind the project to get it to this point.

Bidding for ARU Peterborough

Plugging the skills gap, and bringing the University project to fruition, has been our shared agenda for many months.

This stretches back to before Ross’ arrival, to late 2019 when Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority initiated the procurement process to identify an academic partner.

Since then, ARU has:

  • Pulled together an overall business model for the University
  • Completed umpteen tender documents
  • Spent many hours in negotiations with the CPCA, and their respective lawyers, to get to the point of being identified as the academic partner.

From the initial procurement meetings, through to being the preferred bidder, took months rather than years.

This is an indication of just how swiftly a procurement process of this magnitude and complexity can progress, provided you have the right focus.

Our reputation for making things happen, focusing on our community’s needs and ambitions, and our place as a world-class regional university were all key points of those negotiations. They have given us an excellent platform to build from.

Opening ARU Peterborough

Since being identified as the Academic Partner, we’ve moved from being an effective and winning bidder to mobilising all the resources across the University to enable ARU Peterborough, as it is now called, to open its doors to the first students in September 2022:

  • New courses have been developed and approved, ready for marketing
  • A new building has been designed and is now under construction
  • The IT infrastructure is ready to go
  • Staff have been engaged in the process, both to listen to and understand the points, ideas, and concerns our existing staff have, and to recruit and induct the new staff we’re bringing on the project with us.
  • A large-scale marketing campaign has led to some impressive local advertising
    Engagement has taken place with local, specialist and national media, as well as networking with local councillors, MPs and, amongst others, Peterborough United Football Club.

Getting under the skin of Peterborough has been a real priority for Ross, who joined the team in February this year.

He’s been leading the charge on much of the engagement activity, including with local businesses, colleges and community groups. They will be vital in ensuring that local people know about, and can progress to the opportunities that ARU Peterborough will bring.

And, most importantly, those same people, of all ages, are our students, current or future.

Getting their ideas about what a great university looks like has been and will continue to be key as we move towards doors opening next year.

We’re co-designing the student experience, so that it meets the needs of local people and businesses, whether that is about the buildings, the services or the courses and modes of study.

Degree Apprenticeships will, for example, feature prominently. That’s what many of our business partners want, as that gives them a much clearer sight on the subjects and skills we’re teaching. Together, we can complement each other’s contributions.

And with the Skills White Paper, and the latest announcements on lifelong learning, our co-design and production model provides those clear progression paths, and higher-level opportunities that students and employees will need for the future.

Learning from ARU Peterborough

It goes without saying that ARU has learned a lot already, in all parts of the institution.

Engaging in, bidding for, and subsequently leading the ARU Peterborough project taught us a lot about:

  • Commerciality
  • Risk management
  • Organisational agility
  • Effective marketing of a start-up
  • Project management
  • Partnership working with a complex local political governance network.

There is undoubtedly a blueprint and model here for future HE developments.

All of this, of course, has been going on during a pandemic. Other than occasional visits to a building site, much has happened virtually. This includes building new relationships, working with industry and other educational partners, recruiting staff, and designing buildings.

But, probably most of all, the project has reinforced the need to have a compelling vision, aligned with our organisational values, and then relentlessly driving that forward.

Our vision ran through everything we did, and we communicated it widely to all the people who needed to know, both inside and outside ARU.

James Rolfe is the Chief Operating Officer at Anglia Ruskin University. Professor Ross Renton is the Principal of ARU Peterborough.