Blog post

Universities as placemakers

To mark the publication of the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission's final report into the future of the 'civic university', Professor Judith Lamie, our Pro Vice-Chancellor - External Affairs, explains how higher education institutions are crucial to a place's identity and vital in playing an active role within the communities they serve.

By Professor Judith Lamie - 12 February 2019

The perfect place

Regarded as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the Derwent Valley, which extends from Derby northwards into Derbyshire, is steeped in momentous history. Home to the first successful silk throwing mill in England and the world's first water-powered cotton mill - along with its collection of factories, canals and railways - our region is renowned as the "powerhouse" of Britain.

Derbyshire provides the perfect place for a thriving university. Situated in the heart of England, it is a place where innovators and industrialists have made their mark on the world for over 300 years.

But place encompasses much more than just heritage and history. From the communities we serve, to the education we provide, our business engagement, and social innovation and enterprise - our place is the foundation for how we make a positive impact locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

Our pivotal role

At Derby, we are in the privileged position of being the only university in the city and county, a position which brings with it not only great responsibility but an amazing opportunity to play a pivotal part in their development and growth.

We recognise, as a University, that the role we have to play in the long-term prosperity of the city and county, and the communities within them, is very much a civic one and we are committed to raising aspirations and improving the education, skills, health and wellbeing of current and future generations across our region.

This is something I spoke about recently at the British Council's SPARK Festival - an event bringing together more than 50 creative and education partners from the UK and Hong Kong focusing on the theme of creativity in the arts, science, altered realities and future skills.

I was on the panel of a round-table discussion with representatives from the University of the Arts London and West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and together we discussed the significant role for universities in making the place, shaping communities and reframing the academic and skills horizon of the locale.

I chose to draw specifically on Derby's civic partnership model and, by outlining our applied education offer, the local skills agenda and economic growth through university business engagement and our involvement in offering services to help address grand societal challenges, the audience understood the significance of the University as a place maker in Derby and Derbyshire.


Universities exist to educate. They have a key role in ensuring education is accessible to all and that higher education opens doors for everyone.

One area of the University which is successfully having a positive civic impact is the engagement work being carried out with schools, colleges and the community. Our Equality and Social Mobility Unit, Widening Access, and Schools and Colleges Liaison teams help break down the barriers that prevent young people from accessing higher education and engaged with more than 35,000 students through the delivery of 700 events in the last academic year.

Nearly 21% of our full-time undergraduates are from neighbourhoods where the proportion of people going on to higher education is historically low and these students are often the first member of their family to go to university.

In 2016, Derby was identified by the government as an Opportunity Area - where extra resources are provided to increase social mobility - and the city is taking great strides to improve the outcomes for young people. We truly believe in the transformational nature of education and, as a champion of social mobility, strive to inspire and create opportunities for all across our region and beyond, regardless of age, background or location.

Skills and business

Businesses flourish in Derby. Rolls-Royce came to Derby more than 100 years ago and now has its global civil aerospace and nuclear headquarters in the city. Toyota UK chose Derby as its home over 25 years ago and continues to invest in its operations here, while Bombardier designs and builds trains in the city, which is the world's largest rail cluster.

At the University, we aim to fulfil our civic responsibility by engaging with and offering support to community groups, businesses and the general public so we can work together to create opportunities, open doors and enhance lives.

We are establishing ourselves as the preferred partner of choice to provide solutions to social and industrial challenges by delivering academic expertise, knowledge and innovation. To strengthen our position, our investment in our Institute for Innovation in Sustainable Engineering (IISE) further supports advanced manufacturing engineering companies in our region and helps to drive innovation.

We have supported the creation of more than 1,000 jobs in key growth sectors across the East Midlands since launching our Invest to Grow funding scheme in 2014. We have awarded more than £18m in funding to help support our region.

Social innovation, enterprise and creativity

Derby has been the home of innovators and thought leaders for hundreds of years. It is a city where businesses have been turning inspirational ideas into reality since the creation of the first cotton spinning mills in the 1700s. It is where Florence Nightingale changed the blueprint for hospital designs and Frank Whittle drew up the concept jet engine.

Imagine a city where the railway industry grew up 175 years ago and still has the largest cluster of associated companies in Europe. This is the home of the world's first factory, the Silk Mill, which today is part of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site.

During this time, the region has built up a strong reputation for its ingenuity, practical application, industry, inventiveness and creativity - all traits well and truly embedded into the philosophy and approach of our university.

At the University of Derby, in addition to the many student-led and delivered performances, exhibitions and conferences across the University's five Colleges and University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL), we are linked to 14 arts and cultural organisations across the city and county. We are connected to a number of cultural partners, including our own Derby Theatre as well as QUAD, Derby Book Festival, ArtCore, Sinfonia Viva and Déda - all with the aim of forging successful and inspired collaborations and promoting Derby as a place of creativity.

We are one of the few universities in the country to own and run a professional producing theatre, giving our students a rare and exceptional experience. However, Derby Theatre's vision is much broader. As well as staging critically acclaimed productions, it provides multiple leisure and learning opportunities for Derby's diverse community, unlocking learning at every level for artists, students and the wider community.

Our theatre takes work into the community where theatre isn't normally seen. The approach ensures the work is relevant, exciting and genuinely reflects people's stories and lived experiences. The theatre learns with and from the community.

This is a prime example of how a university can work with its local community to leverage the power of arts, culture and creativity to the benefit of all and enhance the quality of a place.

Universities as game changers

Universities are fundamental in helping to address societal and place-based challenges and our research, knowledge creation and innovation is focused on making a practical, positive difference to people - regionally, nationally and globally.

As a university, we are clear that we want to play an integral civic role in the communities in which we have a presence. The obvious role for a university is as an educator, cultivating knowledge and skills, but our new Strategic Framework provides a clear message about our broader impact - driving the economic, social, cultural, educational and environmental prosperity of our home, raising aspirations and improving the health and wellbeing of people in our region.

Collaboration and strong strategic partnerships are vital in helping higher education institutions become part of a place's identity.

The UPP (University Partnerships Programme) Foundation Civic University Commission - a major new independent inquiry into the future of the civic university - was set up to determine how universities can successfully serve their place in the 21st century. In its Progress Report, which was launched late 2018, it states that the key to ensuring civic activity is co-ordinated and impactful is through adopting a clear strategy informed by close partner engagement and an objective analysis of local needs.

Our commitment

Today (12 February 2019), the UPP Foundation Civic University Commission's final report was published, with Derby being among 30 universities who have signed a new "Civic University Agreement" to reaffirm their commitment to their local communities by pledging to put the economy and quality of life in their home towns and cities at the top of their list of priorities.

The report sets out how universities have the capability, opportunity and responsibility to support further the places where they are based to solve some of the most pressing and major problems.

Our geographical location is key in working more collaboratively with educational institutions, local authorities, key agencies and business as this enriches our connectivity within the region. But equally as important is our civic responsibility and how we can successfully and positively impact our surrounding communities.

We fully appreciate and embrace the history of Derby and Derbyshire and its role in creating a place for our university. Today, Derby has flourished into a vibrant, modern city. Its industrial heartbeat still beats strong but we are a modern university with a modern outlook and have to approach the next decade with purpose, positivity and confidence in what we are going to achieve in the future.

For further information contact the Corporate Communications team at or call 01332 593953.

About the author

Professor Judith Lamie
Former Pro Vice-Chancellor - External Affairs

As Former Pro Vice-Chancellor, External Affairs I was responsible for student recruitment and all strategies and activities that impact on the University's external reputation. I led and managed a diverse team that included Marketing, Communications and PR, UK and International Partnerships, Alumni Relations and International Development.