The first UCMK students are set to take up their places at the city’s new university over the next few weeks – but its Dean is already looking forward to a time when more than a thousand people come to study from all over the world.
Professor Keith Straughan, a man who has degrees in Physics, Medical Imaging and Theology, hopes the university can become a seat of learning of international renown in its specialist areas.
The academic is also, remarkably, an ordained priest in the Church of England.
“I had a parish for a while, but I realised my vocation wasn’t limited to being inside the church,” he said.
“Then I had the chance came to become Dean of Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge University where I eventually became Senior Tutor and Acting Bursar. Being Senior Tutor at a Cambridge College is a wonderful job because you have a lot of responsibility for the life and direction of the College and you can make things happen.
“My religious vocation is very important to me, but I realised I could do more good by marrying the sacred with the secular.
“Sometimes on the outside you get a better view of an organisation like the Church than you do wearing funny clothes and being in a particular pigeon hole on the inside.
“The world is a complex place which is rarely well understood from a single perspective. What’s more I think theological and scientific training can complement each other very well.”
Professor Straughan said he could easily have stayed in Cambridge for life, but his commitment to the evolution of education made the chance to set up UCMK too good to ignore.
“We need places like Oxford and Cambridge but it’s a funny thing, while both institutions are on the cutting edge in terms of academic research they’re also very traditional places where change comes slowly.
“Here was a chance to start to move from somewhere with eight hundred years of history to one with a relatively blank sheet of paper. UCMK will be very experimental and that’s exciting.”
The word ‘university’ actually has legal protection and no organisation can use the title without the approval of the Privy Council and only after proving its academic worth and financial viability.
UCMK is a joint project between the University of Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes Council.
“If Milton Keynes is to continue to grow with a strong economy and effective business community it needs a university,” Professor Straughan said.
“It is remarkable and typical of the city, that in these times of economic contraction, this really significant new development is taking place in MK.
“Within a few years I hope there will be a substantial number of students here with accommodation blocks, lecture rooms, labs, and all the facilities one would expect to see at a modern university. We’re already looking at a number of sites.”
Next year Engineering and Technology will be added to the Business, Leadership, Management and Computer Networking qualifications already on offer. Professor Straughan sees Milton Keynes being a place where foreign students will come in sizeable numbers as it develops an international reputation.
He said one of the keys to this is the city’s determination to become a ‘Smart City,’ where services, education, transport, health and digital networks are all linked together to operate hyper-efficiently and sustainably – something he hopes his own research can help the university with.
He was closely involved with the development of the clinical MRI scanner and of intravascular ultrasound, diagnostic tools which he says, “don’t just take pretty pictures of people’s insides but also, with the use of some clever maths, make diagnoses and therefore treatment more accurate and appropriate.”
His work has spanned diseases as varied as breast cancer, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. Now he wants to see research of a similar calibre happening at UCMK.
“I want to see us offering an MBA [Master of Business Administration] in Smart Cities,” he added.
“This could in turn lead to undergraduate degrees in the same subject, post-doctoral research – anything is possible if we get it right, and the key to that is quality.
“If we can show that the education we offer is of sufficiently high standard then people will want to come. It’s so exciting and such a wonderful opportunity.”