Profile: Sir Peter Gregson on the skills gap and industry collaboration

Sir Peter Gregson, vice-chancellor of Cranfield University, talks to James Higgins about the skills gap, private sector collaboration and his university’s ‘living laboratory’


Name: Sir Peter Gregson

Job title: Vice-chancellor, Cranfield University

Twitter: @CranfieldUni

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Q. What are the strategic goals and targets that Cranfield University has set itself?

I think the big challenge for Cranfield is making sure that we realise that ambition of being a very definite specialist postgraduate university, built on the two very strong pillars that we have in technology and our School of Management. We tend to work very much closer with business and government than other universities do and put strategic partnerships at the heart of our mission. If we think about partnerships with strategic corporate partners, we develop large-scale facilities and undertake research that goes from low technology-readiness levels right the way through to very high technology-readiness level research that can be translated straight out onto production lines. We’re fully accredited for health and safety purposes to commercial standards because we want our students and our staff to enjoy an almost seamless transition between university and business.

We tend to work very much closer with business and government than other universities do and put strategic partnerships at the heart of our mission.

Q. What has Cranfield achieved recently?

Two years ago, we formally opened the university’s aerospace integration research centre – a joint £35m project between the university, Rolls-Royce and Airbus. We have regular visits from our partners which is what I mean about true integration and partnership with business. We’ve now cut ground on a digital aviation research and technology centre that’s incorporating the UK’s first remote digital air traffic control centre which features a beyond-visual-line-of-sight experimentation corridor for drones. We have other projects which are helping to turn our university into a living laboratory including one completely unique project we call MUEAVI, our multi-user environment for autonomous vehicle innovation, which is developing autonomous vehicles for both land and air.

At the moment, we have a new water laboratory being developed under the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities, where we’re responsible for new water infrastructure. In the area of agri-food, we host two of the four precision agriculture centres in the UK and we’ve opened a four-storey greenhouse. So, in those three areas, I think you could see the partnerships really being reflected in a very unique set of national capabilities.

This four-storey greenhouse is Cranfield’s testbed centre for new, sustainable agri-food technologies which explore how water conservation and data can improve our farming industry

In the field of teaching, probably because we were originally on an RAF base, we have very close links with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and hold the academic provider contract for the provision of all technology-led master’s-level courses for the armed forces and for the civil servants within the MoD.

Q. What are the benefits and challenges to having so many commercial partners?

At Cranfield we think of that triangle between university, business and government in everything we do. Because we’re working at high technology-readiness levels, we also think of the regulators who might need to take a view on some of the technologies and we would do it at a much earlier stage than other universities.

I think what makes our partnerships special is bringing together companies and universities in the same space. I think about our aerospace integration research centre that brings together in one physical space Cranfield, Airbus, and Rolls-Royce – that’s the first time that staff from Airbus and Rolls-Royce have ever been co-located in one place. Does it raise challenges? Yes, of course, we rely upon the professional experience and the professionalism of our staff and our students to make sure that the working practices and confidentiality expected by our key clients in business is absolutely respected.

transport technologies
Cranfield is pioneering new transport technologies including autonomous vehicles and traffic control centres at its very own adjacent airport

Q. How helpful is government policy for Cranfield University?

I think it’s a very good question and something that I spend a lot of time thinking about and a lot of time working in London to try and shape. I think, mainly, over recent years government policy has worked well in this area. We have UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to oversee the work of both research councils which are there to fund the fundamental research, and Innovate, which is there to support more applied research. What Cranfield has decided to do is to use its very distinctive facilities that we have on this campus to ensure that we can develop some national facilities.

Q. Do you think there is a skills gap in the UK workforce?

We absolutely believe that such a gap exists.

And that’s exactly the space that our involvement in the feasibility study of MK:U – the new technology-focused model university – is designed to explore. Milton Keynes is, of course, the home of Bletchley Park, where you could take our digital revolution back to the second world war. We are currently going through a formal feasibility study. We have a formal stage gate process at the end of this calendar year that will determine whether or not the Cranfield University governing body will make the decision to progress with MK:U or not.

One of the things that we’re very keen to do is to break down the traditional barriers that exist between different parts of the educational sector.

Q. Is that skills gap emerging at the degree level due to deficiencies in current undergraduate courses or because STEM GSCE and A-level studies aren’t bringing students up to a place where they should be?

I think it’s a combination. One of the things that we’re very keen to do is to break down the traditional barriers that exist between different parts of the educational sector. In Milton Keynes, we’re very keen to integrate the work of Milton Keynes College with the new model university to create seamless ladders for progression at different levels; you can only do that if you’re working very closely with business.

I think there have been a lot of attempts in the past to do it, but they’ve been in isolation with the academic institutions alone trying to achieve things. One of our commitments with MK:U is to have a very seamless engagement with businesses and their needs.

From the archive: International tech link-up for Cranfield

Q. Do we need to focus on new courses to help close the gap?

Yes. That could be standard apprenticeships.

We could also offer accelerated degrees. We should offer more by way of experiential learning in companies, and integration between companies and learning in classrooms. I think that’s what’s distinctive about the education we provide at a postgraduate level at Cranfield and what we want to foster in the undergraduate environment at MK:U.