Blue sky thinking taking shape for a ‘cloud’ university

UNIVERSITY SITE: The land opposite Sainsbury's in Witan Gate, known as B4 has been identified as the favourite site for a new university quarter in central Milton Keynes
UNIVERSITY SITE: The land opposite Sainsbury's in Witan Gate, known as B4 has been identified as the favourite site for a new university quarter in central Milton Keynes

A NEW £200million university in Milton Keynes might not have its own library or lecture theatres.

Boffins have been putting their thinking caps on over what a university should be like in the 21st Century.

Professor Keith Straughan, dean of the University Centre MK, in Silbury Boulevard, told a meeting on Thursday, February 23, that a new university could work without the traditional institutional set ups.

“It has been said that a lecture is a way of passing information from the lecturer to the student without it going through the minds of either,” Prof Straughan told Midsummer Breakfast Club, at Jurys Inn, in Midsummer Boulevard.

He said lessons could take place in small classes, to stimulate ideas and creativity. And a new university could use the facilities, including a library, of other nearby institutions, like the Open University and Cranfield.

“We have five university partners, why should we set up another similar one?,” he said.

Prof Straughan told the gathering of 80 business leaders that the very concept of what a university should be like in the 21st century is being ripped up and re-worked.

A planning application for buildings could be ready in 2013 and the site opposite Sainsbury’s, in Witan Gate, has been identified as a favoured central location.

Prof Straughan said thinking should start with what skills graduates and potential employers need and that would determine the physical set up of the institution. He coined the term “cloud university” but said this did not mean all teaching would be done online.

He said a new university should be able to be flexible to meet the changing needs of students and the business community. Prof Straughan has himself started up five companies.

Prof Straughan pointed to the very real need for Milton Keynes to have a university to drive creativity and economic growth.

He said although Milton Keynes was in the top five cities, out of 64, in the recent Centre for Cities report, it was much lower down for patent applications and high level knowledge jobs.

“We have not gone out of our way to bring the knowledge intense businesses into the city,” he said. “We need to do that to grow.”

The former Cambridge University Don added that cities performing better than Milton Keynes had universities.

“We need it as an economic driver,” he said. A community of students could bring £27million into the city, he claimed.

Prof Straughan said a new university site could house an 800-delegate conference centre as well as new retail businesses, an hotel and space for corporate headquarters to make it more financially viable. And he told Business Citizen that commercial interest has already been shown in the venture. It is being sold as a venture that could help businesses improve performance.

Prof Straughan added: “If we dare to think differently we could end up with something of great value. It would be a powerful symbol of Milton Keynes.

“Are we up to do something really radical, ready to break the mould?,” he asked.