2017 has been a golden year for the University of Derby. Amidst the political turmoil and shifting Higher Education landscape, Derby’s reputation and profile has been steadily growing, the accolades and recognition filtering through.
First there was TEF Gold, a national acknowledgement by the government of the teaching excellence that takes place at Derby. This was followed by being shortlisted as one of 27 finalists in the Higher Education Academy’s first Global Teaching Excellence Awards, and then most recently being ranked by Times Higher Education as one of the top 1,000 universities in the world.
Rosie Marshalsay sits down with Professor Malcolm Todd, Pro Vice-Chancellor – Academic and Student Experience, as he looks back on the year and forward to the future, and what it holds for the University and its students.
A year in review
“It’s true, this has been a great year for the University of Derby, for so many reasons, but we haven’t got here by chance,” opens Malcolm, who joined the University in September 2014 as a Dean, and now has a remit to enable an excellent student learning experience, seeking out opportunities for growth and enhancement.
“From the outset our Vice-Chancellor set very clear expectations that this university, and everyone within it, needs to be performing, operating and delivering at the highest level. And at the end of the day why would we want to do anything less?
“So our achievements are a reflection of quality – the quality of our teaching, of the support and professional service staff here at Derby, and of what our students achieve in terms of their outcomes, their graduate prospects and the brilliant jobs and careers they move onto in the future.
“It’s fantastic to receive this recognition, nationally and internationally, and the expectation is that we continue to build on our position. But for me it is very much about ‘what does all this mean for our students?’”
Ultimately students should have the assurance that they will receive an outstanding quality experience at Derby
And there’s the question. The debate this year around tuition fees has shone a spotlight on whether universities offer value for money, and on the greater expectations by students over what experience they receive.
“I think it’s really important to understand that at Derby we don’t see students as the consumers of an educational product, where they are fed through the system and they come out with a degree. That is not the philosophy of this university.
“Ultimately students should have the assurance that they will receive an outstanding quality experience at Derby; one that takes them onto whatever they want to do in the future, whether that’s further study, research or graduate-level employability.
“We want to work with every single student to give them a range of opportunities so they can reach their potential. We take value for money really seriously; we’ve got to be very clear about what our students get in return for their fees.
“Fundamentally it is about the quality of experience they have here. Not just in terms of teaching, but the facilities they have access to and our whole university estate. By listening to our students and constantly looking at what our provision and offer is, we’re in the best position to make any changes and improvements that are needed.”
Listening to the student voice
The value Derby places on ensuring its students have a voice that is actually listened to, is something Malcolm believes will be key to its continued success.
“What’s really important to us, as a university, is that our students have a voice that influences our direction. It can’t be a tokenistic experience; it has to be genuine, real and impactful.
“We aim to embrace the student voice at every level; the Vice-President of the Union of Students co-chairs the Student Experience Learning and Teaching Committee, a major committee with significant influence and one that is fully supported by the Vice-Chancellor. The University Executive team also meets with students annually and this gives them the chance to ask us questions, flag up areas of concern and hold us to account.
“We take this type of collaboration incredibly seriously and, in many ways, I think we’re leading in the sector in giving students the opportunity to work with us in this way. It’s been a fantastic success; it has brought together agendas that never existed here before, and as a result we get a really student-focused perspective on all the papers and discussions related to the University and the student experience that come into that committee.
What’s really important to us, as a university, is that our students have a voice that influences our direction
“At the end of the day we both have the same goals, to ensure that all students coming to this university have an amazing time, not only academically, but socially and culturally. So it’s about working together and bringing those visions together, and I think we’re doing really well to do that.”
Derby is certainly heading in the right direction, no doubt spurred on by stiff regional competition – our neighbour Nottingham Trent University has recently been named The Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year – but how far is the institution from taking their crown?
“First of all I’m delighted for Nottingham Trent; they are a great university and an asset to the Midlands region. What will it take for Derby to achieve that status? I think we’re very much going in the right direction. To have achieved that Gold TEF status and international recognition, to have made significant steps in graduate level employability, and to be consistently ranked high in terms of teaching quality means we’re very much on the journey to achieving what I believe will make Derby the outstanding university in this country over the next three to four years.”
That’s an ambitious statement; can it really be done?
“What I think it will take is that continued focus from everyone, across every single department in the University, to be always delivering at their very best. That takes commitment, it takes focus, it takes dedication and I believe we have a staff base that can deliver on that.
“We’re in a very competitive marketplace within Higher Education and my ambition for Derby is that we’re recognised for outstanding quality of provision moving forward. Our students deserve nothing less.”