Change used to be measured in centuries, then in decades and now the world can be remade in just a few years. Nowhere is this clearer than in the world of work. The World Economic Forum believes that 35% of the skills needed across industry and business will change in as little as two years.
Industries like my own see this change happening every day. That is why projects like MK:U are so important, and why we are a major supporter of establishing a new university in Milton Keynes.
Skills that were once rewarded with a lifetime’s secure employment are becoming outdated. At the same time, new skills – in the digital technologies supporting artificial intelligence, automation and machine learning – are in short supply. The gap between those equipped to best prosper in this new world and those who are not risks becoming a chasm.
These changes pose both a challenge and an opportunity for business, just as they do for the communities we serve. We have a collective responsibility to meet them. I believe initiatives like MK:U will be a vital part of doing so, and the rewards are virtually unlimited.
Milton Keynes is not just home to 5,000 Santander staff, working in areas including cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, it is at the heart of the Oxford-Cambridge arc. From financial technology to pharmaceuticals, this region is a global centre of innovation, all of it underpinned by the digital skills which MK:U will teach. It is already home to universities ranked one and two in the world, plus world-class postgraduate provision at Cranfield. MK:U will be a key force leveraging the astonishing potential of the arc, a potential perhaps greater than any other region in Europe.
But MK:U will also be different. It will respond directly to the needs of employers in real time, as change moves ever faster and those needs evolve. It will produce work-ready graduates, all of whom will have completed courses with design input from world-class employers. It will focus on new technologies, including smart cities, autonomous vehicles, robotics and AI, digital and cyber.
Crucially, it will benefit the staff of nearby firms by providing lifelong access for continuous learning. A rising pension age means people will be working longer with a bigger gap between getting qualified and entering retirement. But automation and digitisation mean employees will have to rapidly acquire new skills. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that 62% of senior executives believe they will need to retrain more than a quarter of their workforce between now and 2023 due to technological change. A university which is aligned from the beginning with the changing needs of employers can play a vital role in making this large-scale reskilling a reality.
MK:U will also be a key civic and cultural engine at the heart of a new city which is expected to be home to 300,000 people in just a few years, and is currently the only town or city of its size in Britain which lacks a university it can call its own.
Higher education cannot be immune to the sort of innovation which is changing all other aspects of life. We need to consider whether a degree cannot be completed much more quickly, for example in just two years; whether the structure of universities and the way they are funded accommodates part-time learners, those who need to update their skills or those looking for a way back into the labour market after time spent as a parent or carer.
MK:U shows every sign that it has answers to these challenges, and to the question of what a university for the 21st century could look like. It is a project whose time has come, in a place whose time has come.