The Role of MK:U in shaping the Oxford-Cambridge Arc
Five part Q&A with Professor Lynette Ryals OBE, CEO, MK:U
1. What is the founding philosophy of MK:U, and what is it doing differently from a digital skills perspective?
The founding philosophy of MK:U is that we are a university designed with business, for business. Working with and consulting with employers at every step of the way, MK:U will develop and maintain a curriculum and an educational approach that is uniquely relevant to the world of work – in effect, blurring the boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘learning’, always thinking about how knowledge can be applied to tackling real-world business and societal issues.
MK:U is focused on providing knowledge and skills that are uniquely relevant to the digital economy and new technologies. To understand what digital skills our learners need, we consulted with tech companies of all sizes. Without exception, these employers told us that they valued a range of commercial and interpersonal skills in their employees. We responded by creating a suite of professional skills that are hard-wired into each of our courses, bearing credits that contribute towards the achievement of their degree.
2. Is it urgent that we rethink our approach towards the traditional curriculum?
The UK is suffering a chronic and growing skills gap, especially in digital skills. With companies struggling to recruit or train enough talent to meet their needs, our economic performance is being adversely impacted. This isn’t just about producing lots of people with relevant skills on paper; it is about producing people who can apply their learning so that they ‘hit the ground running’ when they are at work.
In terms of rethinking the traditional curriculum, current skills crisis requires innovative solutions. This translates into a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to learning by which students work in groups to research and develop solutions to problems and challenges set by business. In PBL traditional curriculum content is tempered by a focus on ‘how to’, with skills and applied knowledge balancing theory. MK:U uses problem-based learning across all of its curriculum.
3. How do we ensure that future generations have the necessary skills to be adaptable and agile in a changing economy?
At MK:U we believe that future generations will need flexible and transferable skills to enable them to adapt to new technologies and innovations throughout their working lives. We already see the rate of technological change driving an increased requirement for people to re-train during their working lifetimes, a development that is likely to gain pace in years to come.
The best way that we can help future generations to adapt is to teach them to ‘learn how to learn’ and to develop the whole person, not just the technical specialist. By utilising problem-based learning we include requirements for professional and personal development that are fully integrated into every course that we offer. We use novel means of assessment to ensure that our learners truly have developed agility and adaptability. Finally, we work with our business supporters group and our industry advisory boards to discuss how the curriculum is developing over time and the new subjects that are emerging so that we can constantly adjust our courses to the needs of working life.
4. Why is the Arc the most appropriate region to be carving the path for transformative education?
Our values (Innovative, Exciting, Relevant, and Professional) reflect the distinctive qualities of the Oxford-Cambridge Innovation Arc, which is home to breakthrough scientific innovations in exciting fields including space propulsion, life sciences, and aerospace.
The Arc is also very much a place where new ideas are applied and relevant in practice, where technology demonstrates new possibilities for sustainable growth. These green technologies include Auto-Shuttle autonomous buses in Cambridge, hydrogen- and electric-powered aircraft at Cranfield, shopping delivery robots in Milton Keynes, and gene technology at Oxford.
Finally, the Arc – and especially the central Arc area in and around Milton Keynes – is a national hot spot for entrepreneurial activity. At MK:U we recognise that entrepreneurs and innovators need support to help their businesses survive and scale. Our Innovation Hub, which opens in March 2022, will provide that support, creating a network of smart city entrepreneurs to work on technology challenges with our support and with help and advice from our partners.
5. What do you see as being the greatest opportunities and challenges as we upskill to meet the future demands of high-technology industries?
The opportunities are huge, both for individuals and for society. Technology changes offer the creation of new, skilled jobs and whole new industries. A World Economic Forum report in June 2021 found that robotics and automation increases both productivity and jobs; PwC estimates that Artificial Intelligence could add $15 trillion to the global economy by 2030 – more than the current output of India and China combined – resulting in an increase of 14% in global GDP. New technologies such as automation and robotics offer solutions that could aid inclusivity by helping those with health or learning differences to participate more fully in their communities.
One challenge is to ensure that everyone does indeed benefit from new technologies, such as ensuring that AI rules are fair; at MK:U we have added ethics as a core part of our compulsory professional skills portfolio studied by all our students. We have also designed our courses, facilities and delivery mechanism to be inclusive of differently-advantaged groups including neurodiverse learners. Another challenge is sustainability and tackling climate change, topics that are built into our core curriculum.
A third challenge is the sheer speed and scale of technological change. New entrants into the workforce, as well as people that are mid-career, will need to prepare themselves to upskill and retrain frequently during their careers. At MK:U we tackle this by bringing together the worlds of work and learning. We have a firm conviction that learning is a core part of every week, for everyone, and a determination to connect people for learning in virtual and in physical domains.
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Webinar: Creating a Talent Pipeline to Supercharge the Arc
In the third instalment of our webinar series with the Arc Universities Group and CBI, we will be discussing how to create a talent pipeline for the future, to supercharge the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.