My View:
June Hughes, University Secretary and Registrar

The higher education sector is in an unprecedented period of challenge, from the controversy surrounding A-level results last summer, to the ongoing debate of demonstrating value for money, all while trying to give students the best possible learning and teaching experience during a global pandemic.

Covid-19 has demonstrated to an even greater extent that the role of universities is critical, and this has been proven, particularly in the UK, through the scientific research that has led to the development of the vaccines.

Universities, including Derby, have responded quickly, rising to the challenge, engaging in planning for local economic recovery, creating and donating PPE and medical supplies at the outset of the pandemic, and through healthcare staff and students stepping onto the frontline to help the wider efforts – our asymptomatic testing centres at the University of Derby are a shining example of that.

Another one of the ways in which the University has been able to support has been through its membership of the Derby Economic Recovery Task Force, set up to help reboot the local economy post-pandemic. Working as part of this collaborative partnership embeds the University as a key part of the fabric of the city and wider county – an ‘anchor institution’ supporting the growth and development of our local communities and economies.

The University and its predecessor institutions have always had a significant role and influence within its locality, going right back to its roots to the Diocesan Training Institution for School Mistresses in 1851. Our history is intertwined with the city, supporting growth and social development through academic learning, from teaching to science, manufacturing and technology, the arts and theatre, to radiography, occupational therapy and nursing. We welcomed our first research students in 1957, established a business and management provision in the second half of the twentieth century, and in the 2000s introduced distance and online learning.

Our local impact is pivotal but so is our global reach, which we have expanded over the years, while staying true to our roots as an institution offering opportunities for upward social mobility and being a positive force for change.

Adapting to the pandemic

Covid-19 has meant substantial operational change for the University and has required significant investment to maintain the student experience and ensure we are continuing to provide value for money for our students.

At the start of the pandemic, we very quickly had to adapt our educational model, formulating plans and proposals that responded effectively to the challenges we faced, offering a blended learning approach through remote and in-person teaching, which allowed us to flex in response to government guidelines through lockdown and the roadmap to emerge from that.

During this period, working to provide all our students with a high-quality university experience has been our focus, and we especially want to ensure that final-year students complete their studies and graduate on time. Our attention is also on preparing for our September 2021 cohort, who will have experienced two years of disruption to their studies at school or college prior to joining the University.

Headshot image of June Hughes, University of Derby Secretary and Registrar

Covid-19 has demonstrated to an even greater extent that the role of universities is critical, and this has been proven, particularly in the UK, through the scientific research that has led to the development of the vaccines.

June Hughes
University Secretary and Registrar

University autonomy and government influence – a balancing act

Meanwhile, universities are also being challenged – at times very publicly – by the higher education regulator, the Office for Students, as well as government, to make sure that new and continuing students are receiving the learning, teaching and assessment promised to them.

While regulation is key, the autonomy of universities is also extremely important, as highlighted by Universities UK, which lists autonomy as one of its priorities: “universities are free to make autonomous decisions according to their diverse missions and the needs of their students and communities.”

However, the challenges coming from government and the constant changes in policy that universities must react to is complex and has required higher education institutions to flex their approach.  

As part of the senior leadership team at the University, we have had to maintain a balancing act between the requirements of government and regulators, and what is best for our University staff and students, while ensuring that we are continuing to deliver high-quality learning and teaching. This would be difficult in any normal situation, but the pandemic provides a whole new set of complexities to work around.

However, although universities are more highly regulated now than ever before, I do believe this to be necessary. During my years within the role, there has been talk of reducing the regulatory burden, but I have seen the reporting element of this increasing. We must remember universities attract students who spend, on average, three years of their life and student loan with us, so it is vital that they get the best possible experience and outcomes, and that universities are accountable for that.

Student success, engagement, retention, progression and achievement is critical. The metrics that the regulators follow and judge the University on, be that tariff or progression, achievement or outcomes, is our own data that we already monitor. We are responsible for our students and their experience, so mapping exercises, including requests for information on how we have put together our blended learning model for students, and how we are seeking and responding to feedback from students, can all be audited and demonstrated. We would expect that to be the case regardless of the regulator.

The challenge lies in ensuring we understand what our regulators expect and the conditions of registration, to work positively with them, respond to their requests, and produce assurance, not only to them but to our staff, students and stakeholders. We will continue to respond to that challenge. Our own students hold us to account and our Union of Students, particularly through the pandemic, has been outstanding and has both challenged and supported the University in equal part, securing the best approach for our students. 

The University of Derby's Kedleston Road campus in the sunshine

Ensuring we are future focused

The external environment within which we work is ever-changing at a local, regional, national and sector level, with daily updates from government, sector agencies and regulators. As a university, we are well connected across all of these, and in a strong position to respond positively to change and challenge, while maintaining focus on our strategic themes and objectives.

I believe that this past year, and the ones that follow as the world recovers and rebuilds, will become one of the defining periods of our history. I look forward to taking the best of what we have learnt through Covid-19, from the ways in which we work with our external stakeholders and partners and how our staff collaborate and work, to how our students learn and the support we offer them, into the future.