Combined Authority award £500,000 for University of Peterborough - but question marks hang over delivery and there’s a call for ‘compelling plan’

Half a million pounds of funds released to University of Peterborough project at combined authority

Half a million pounds of funds released to University of Peterborough project at combined authority meeting. Picture: ROBERT ALEXANDER. - Credit: Archant

More than half a million pounds of funding was approved for the University of Peterborough project.

The annual meeting of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority took place on May 29.

Noel O'Neil, chief financial officer, said: "We shall release £300,000 for site assessments, planning preparation and permissions.

"This will allow for three things to be done: a procurement competition for design and build contractors will be run.

"Agreement of the prospectus for the University outlining the curriculum will be completed, and finally, the spatial planning for the site will be developed.

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"In addition to that money, a further £235,000 of funding will be released for four key elements needed to bring this project together according to the recommendations in the reports we commissioned.

"First, an expert programme management team will be engaged who have the experience and skills to deliver a world class University.

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"Second, we need to find a delivery partner. Milton Keynes have just announced their University project will be partnered by Santander.

"We need something similar from a large, Peterborough-based organisation who would be prepared to partner our University project.

"Third, we need to engage consultants who will work with the Combined Authority to create an outline business plan.

"And fourth, we then need to develop that outline business plan into a full business case.

"This requires comprehensive analysis, and should be completed prior to the commencement of formal procurement as it provides the basis for formal supply approval."

Cllr Lewis Herbert was supportive of the scheme, but cautious: "I do think in supporting this that we should have more transparent updates as to where the University project is.

"Knowing the University sector, aspects of the demand for apprenticeships and degrees, and the aspirations that we have for a successful University in Peterborough, I just think we've got to see more of the 'route to market' on a regular basis.

"We need to know what proportion of funding will be keeping the project going. Academic institutions that rely wholly on fee-paying people for their existence are in a very vulnerable position at the moment.

"I don't think that this project will work unless it's got 'basket funding', but also, it needs to have a compelling plan with an inspiring person who will drive it forward.

"Ultimately, this does need a 'leader' who can establish something out of what are relatively small beginnings.

"But it will be June before we next hear back from you as to where it's at and how will it be delivered."

Cllr John Holdich, who has 'championed' the University of Peterborough project from the very beginning, responded: "I accept that, and the Business Board actually asked me almost the same thing yesterday at their meeting.

"I agree with everything Cllr Herbert has said; with these two funding streams released, we'll report more frequently giving the board a clearer picture of where we're going."

However, Cllr Bridget Smith had some serious concerns: "There's inadequate research being done on actual demand, and we have to know what young people want from our university, because they are no longer just 'students', they are our clients and we will be running a business which is answerable to them.

"There's potential conflict with the students that you're targeting because they can easily get apprenticeships where they don't end up with £40k of debt.

"So the question I'm asking, because they surely will, is 'What is the added value of going to this new University, as opposed to doing high-level apprenticeships?

"There's got to be a difference between them, so that we can sell our product and have it wanted in the market place."

She went on to add: "I'm very aware that Cranfield University Milton Keynes has just opened its doors and they're focussing on 'Steadman' subjects: nursing, engineering and accountancy, going into a first job.

"They also have an absolutely aspirational leader in Dr Julie Mills - I met with her and thought 'crikey, I want to go there myself'.

"I appreciate all the work that Cllr Holdich has done, but we need our University to have a 'champion' and a 'fisherman', because we've got some very serious local competition.

"The government has said it will be investing a lot more money into apprenticeships in future to avoid graduates leaving university with huge debt, and the Augar Report, due out tomorrow, will likely recommend fees be reduced to £7,500 a year, or even less.

"I guess my question really is, 'what's going to be special about the University of Peterborough, and how are we going to assess the demand?'."

Kim Cooke, skills strategy manager for the combined authority, said: "Obviously from a research position we're still collating the data, but we've just commissioned a study of 200 visitors to Peterborough asking them 'what degrees do they want?', and 'what kind of a curriculum would they buy into?'.

"More importantly, we're asking them what methods of delivery they expect, should it be 'applied'? Is it 'theory'? Do they want apprenticeships?

"What Cllr Smith says is absolutely right, young people will be our 'business clients', and they don't want to be saddled for the rest of their working lives with huge debt from their University years.

"It's actually imperative that this University's USP is different - it's not just the eyes of the local competition who are looking at us, we're being reviewed and scrutinised both nationally and internationally; so we have to get this right.

"The city of Peterborough has an opportunity to be a trail-blazer, and the University can, and will play a huge role in that.

"We're working with local businesses, the Business Board of the Combined Authority, with the Skills Strategy Group - We're asking them the same question: 'What does this area need from a University?'

"It needs to address the priority sectors, it needs to have a curriculum that can offer some real jobs at the end of the learning process, and the businesses in Peterborough have a vital role to play in determining how that curriculum is shaped.

"We have huge challenges ahead of us, but you ask 'what's going to be special about the University of Peterborough?', well, the key is retaining the graduates.

"In Cambridge they attract 78% of applying students; but only 27% stay. Why? Simple, there are no jobs and as graduates they can't afford to live in Cambridge.

"What the University of Peterborough will offer is a world class education, with the real promise of jobs at the end of it with a company who can compete with the best in the world.

"At the same time, we're offering our graduates affordable homes, so that they can settle in this area.

"Now that really is something to aspire to."

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