Working together for a great student experience at Derby

Professor Malcolm Todd, Provost (Academic) of the University of Derby, explains how students and staff have worked together to enhance the experience of those who choose to study at Derby.

To say that students are at the heart of everything we do as a University may seem obvious, but the quality of the student experience adds true value to the delivery of higher education.

We have a huge responsibility in the time our students spend with us for so much more than the qualifications they leave with: their career path, well-being and even their worldview can be affected by the policy choices we make and the support systems we have in place.

Staff and students as partners in academic endeavour

Embarking on a University education is a precious, never-to-be-repeated opportunity for the vast majority of us, and our aim as educators is to make it as safe, enjoyable and successful for as many of our students as we possibly can.

Our commitment to that aim is why Derby was the first University in the country to publicly sign up to Advance HE’s Student Success Framework. Putting students at the heart of the learning experience and curriculum design, supporting attainment and providing opportunities for students to develop independent learning skills are among the primary tenets of that agreement, which is a natural fit with our strategic vision for the University.

Our own Student Experience Framework (SEF) has been a significant development too. The SEF underlines the role of students as partners in “academic endeavour” and commits to preserving the relationship in a number of ways.

Involving students in decision making at course level, to have them co-design the curriculum, services and systems are critical, as is creating opportunities for dialogue with the Vice-Chancellor and the University Executive.

The co-chairing of meetings and events by staff and students, and the Union’s integral involvement in our Vice-Chancellor’s staff briefings are all things that we do at Derby.

And if I was to select one of the numerous successful outcomes of the close working relationship we have developed with our Union of Students it would be the co-creation of an anonymous marking policy.

Surveys had shown there was a significant demand for this from our students, so, recognising its importance to them, the University’s Executive and the Union collaborated effectively to respond to that requirement.

Personalising the student experience

At Derby, we place great importance on not only personalising the university experience but also empowering our student body to make decisions with us which will, first and foremost, serve their interests, and those of the students who will follow them in years to come.

Our wellbeing and support offer is nationally-renowned, not just for its provision here, but for research which is helping to shape how it is delivered at universities across the UK. Personal academic tutoring has been something we have introduced at Derby to provide a holistic system of support to every one of our 20,000-plus students.

Just to give our students the guidance to improve their work, essential though that is, is not enough. The role of the personal academic tutor is to act as a reliable named contact for each student, to support them at every step along their academic journey. Each university will have – or know how to access – specialist skills that can make a real difference to a student’s performance, which in turn can benefit their mental health by reducing anxiety and raising confidence.

Just knowing that that level of personal support is available can be a real boost to a student, whether they need it or not. By allaying any worries they may have about facing the challenge of higher education alone, we can give them a clarity of mind that helps them to focus on getting the most from their studies, and the many other opportunities that make the student experience so valuable.

Preparation for a career is also central to the overall experience. At Derby, every student will undertake a minimum of 30 hours’ work experience. Apprenticeships and placements are helping to prepare students for the workplace during their degree programme, opening their eyes to how teaching delivered in the lecture theatre, classroom or workshop applies to the real world.

Such experience can only build confidence, not in only in our students’ career and degree choices, but in the skills and knowledge they have acquired, and can demonstrate competently each day in the workplace.

Shaping our policy and practice

We are extremely proud to have our Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) Gold award, and have established a Centre of Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), also award-winning in its own right, to which student engagement and success are central. We also support that programme by investing in the personal development of our teaching staff, encouraging membership of bodies which advocate and promote innovative and engaging teaching practice, such as Advance HE. 

A high proportion of our total staff have teaching qualifications and, within that group, we have a significant percentage with fellowships and advanced fellowships.

Making our campus buildings accessible long into the evening, and operating a 24-hour library in the lead-up to exams, as well as investing in new library stock, offers our students flexibility and reassurance that our academic facilities can be made available at times to suit them. That reflects the differing needs of our very diverse student population, including almost 50% who commute to the University every day.

Infrastructure and facilities are hugely important factors, and empowering our students to shape the policy and practice of the University is imperative for us, as is providing exciting extra-curricular opportunities, including our International Travel Awards programme of fully-funded trips for students to locations as diverse as New York, Budapest and Iceland.

Our Centre for Student Life was set up to help students maximise the myriad opportunities and activities on offer to them here at Derby, and our International Student Centre has been recognised nationally for the support it offers undergraduates, helping them to settle here in Derby and make new friends.

All of this work reflects our commitment to, and investment in, personalising and supporting the learning journey of each individual, and underlines why choosing to study at the University of Derby might just prove to be the best decision you’ve made yet.

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