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The pandemic turned our lives upside down, bringing the biggest challenge and change to everyday life that most of us will ever experience. Adapting to this new world and the restrictions imposed upon us was difficult enough but having to steer a university and its thousands of students and staff through such uncharted waters is an entirely different challenge.

How do you lead a university through a global pandemic, and, as we emerge from the other side, ensure that it comes out stronger?

Rosie Marshalsay speaks to Professor Kathryn Mitchell DL, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Derby, to find out.

“As an organisation we were very systematic in our approach to addressing the needs of our students, the impact this would have on our staff, and how we would engage with our stakeholders. Our response was measured and considered, which allowed us to prioritise the key things that needed to happen – from an academic, health and safety, and support services perspective. As part of our business continuity model, each element was treated with equal importance, but we had space to flex and address any issues that arose.

“The biggest challenge we faced was supporting our diverse community of staff and students during the pandemic – it is all very well being systematic, but at a personal level it impacted people very differently. In addition, from a corporate perspective, making sure we could, and still can, maintain effective health and safety measures, at all times, was crucial because you do not want to put people into an unsafe environment. Thankfully, we have effective infrastructure and processes in place, through Human Resources, Estates and an array of professional service teams, to help support our staff and students and keep them safe. The team approach has been amazing.”

University of Derby flag

There is no doubt the pandemic has tested everybody’s resolve, but it has also acted as a catalyst to bring people and organisations together for the common good. If there has ever been a time for universities to show their value and role within their communities, then the last 12 months has surely been a defining period?

“The collaborative partnerships that have been developed, particularly between the local networks but especially with our public health teams, our NHS trusts, local authorities and the University, to respond to the pandemic, has meant that we have brokered an understanding of the ways we should work together as anchor institutions.

“The University’s role in this partnership has been key, because we have the ability to draw on the student and staff resource at our disposal, alongside the collective knowledge and expertise within the institution, to benefit not just our organisation, but also the wider community. The role that we have played throughout this time and can continue to play in the future – because we now have better ways of working in place – is probably one of the best outcomes we could have expected in relation to the pandemic, and we must never lose that.

“What we do need to consider though, is why has it taken a pandemic for us to look at a system-wide approach across the region? There is no doubt that this collaborative approach has worked in this extreme situation, but we do not want this approach to always be based on extremes. Going forward, we need to challenge ourselves with some clear civic projects which would enable this working practice and is aligned to being an influence for the betterment of the region. We must now create a structure and a model that addresses how we will maintain this way of working once the pandemic is over.” 

While the pandemic has been all-consuming, it has also provided space and time for self-reflection and has potentially left us with a different outlook on life – what have you learnt about yourself and those you work with?

“At a personal level, I knew I was resilient, but one thing I have learnt is that I can delegate more than I probably have felt I could have done in the past. In a very structured environment, like the one we have at Derby, this has been made easier because of the team I have around me. They have, during the most challenging of times, been open, transparent, and resilient, which has meant that I have had absolute confidence in them and in our broader approach. This is true for both my leadership team and my Executive office team, led by Helen Harvey.

“I have also found that I am able to step back and look at the University in quite an objective way, even during a time of great crisis, and really consider the importance of a university, not just as a place of work, but as the heart of a community; something we must make sure continues and grows.

“The way our staff and students have adapted so well to the changing environment is something I am hugely proud of. Throughout this time, our students have been incredibly mature, adaptable, and articulate, in the way they have brought their issues forward. We are extremely fortunate to have effective collaboration and a great working relationship with our Union of Students.

“And with regards to our staff, there are many unsung heroes in Derby that I am indebted to for the long hours they have put in and for their total commitment. They have kept our staff and students safe, enabled our students to continue with their learning and supported the University moving in its future direction.

“We have not stood still; during this academic year we have secured more grants than we have ever done so before and we have had more successes in winning bids, which further demonstrates the level of commitment that we have at Derby.”

Vice-Chancellor Kathryn Mitchell speaking to students

This September you will have been our Vice-Chancellor for six years – the University has moved on significantly, what do you still want to achieve?

“Quite a lot! One thing we must absolutely do is think much more about the upward mobility of our students, so we can provide them with the broadest opportunities while they are here, to prepare them for the future.

“It is an incredibly challenging employment market which will only become more so in the future. To address this, we need employers to want to nurture University of Derby students – we need a valuable and supportive partnership model, where the student voice is present from the outset – such that our graduates become part of their future businesses, adding value, and assuring vibrancy for the region and beyond. This to me is critical for our student success.

“At an institutional level, by the next Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), I want Derby to be known as an organisation that has continued to deliver very high-quality teaching and learning, which will be recognised by us achieving TEF Gold again. Also, the outcome of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) will be significant. We have seen a step change in our research activity, outputs, and profile, with the number of staff submitting high-quality papers to REF 2021 doubling since REF 2014. However, I would like to ensure that the impact of our research increases, so that Derby becomes known for its research excellence across some core themes as well as our teaching and learning excellence.

“It is also important that students with a qualification from Derby are recognised nationally as being of exceptional quality, which is then reflected in the opportunities they get through our industry partners.”

University of Derby Kedleston Road campus building

Looking forward, what opportunities do you see on the horizon for the University, and our city and county? And how can we make sure we are best placed to capitalise on those?

“The zero-carbon initiative – a strong government agenda – is one we are addressing with both the city and county. We are working on a number of key projects relating to transport, the NAMRC (Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre) project with our city and the University of Sheffield, and also the Green Entrepreneurs project in collaboration with the county. The latter project has commenced, and I am delighted that there is significant traction with many SMEs. The collaborative partnership working with Derbyshire County Council has been phenomenal.

“I do think transport is a critical project for the region, firstly to create a better environment for us all, but especially because of the expertise of many industries across the city and county. I think asking the question on future transport models for a region that houses both industrial and rural economies is important, and I can see that there are huge opportunities around that, but we will only be successful if we work together, because we need the best proposition to secure Government funding.

“If we look at the wellbeing agenda as a whole, and the mix between zero carbon and our brilliant outdoors, then what we have is an attractive and relatively unique proposition. It is not common to have such breadth of innovation in one city, surrounded by the opportunity to encourage an improved health and wellbeing lifestyle, due to the exquisite countryside, on our doorstep. However, I believe we do need to address these issues by unpacking the deprivation of our region, through a health, wellbeing, and innovation agenda, then we could have a truly transformative and long-term impact.”

It is exciting to hear about the scale of ambition that you have, but if you had to pick one thing that is most important to you, as the Vice-Chancellor, what would it be?

“The driver behind everything we do is making sure that every single one of our students has access to the right teaching, learning and facilities to be successful.”