Beyond the lecture theatre

A university is defined in the dictionary as a place where people study for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. But is this description an accurate depiction of the modern university?

Quality teaching and an enhanced student experience are at the heart of the University of Derby’s offering, but universities have diversified and expanded beyond what many traditionally perceive a university to be. Here we examine what really happens beyond the lecture theatre.

“A university is a place where people come for knowledge. Sometimes that's undergraduate and postgraduate students, and sometimes it’s business, organisations and other universities. But what is critical for any university, the thing that separates it from the rest of the education sector, is that people come here because we create knowledge,” explains Professor Warren Manning, Provost Innovation and Research at the University of Derby.

“Researchers are innovators. Sometimes our partners are creating new knowledge, methods, insights and evaluations. And that's why in some respects, separating research and innovation from teaching is very difficult, because they feed into each other.

“Our undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are informed and brought to life by our research, and use the methodologies that our research has developed at the University. Research is a massive enabler for high quality education.”

Researcher and student working together

Professor Manning is keen to mend the tear that has been in place for so long, where research, innovation, and teaching in universities are viewed in isolation rather than as one.

“Together with Professor Keith McLay - Provost Learning and Teaching at Derby, we are really keen to overlap our agendas, to be shoulder to shoulder pushing forward. Academia quite often gets interpreted as teaching and learning, but it is the research that underpins this as well.

“Our work with business and through consultancy and knowledge exchange is part of this and serves two purposes. One is very much to help to grow businesses in our economy to make Derby, Derbyshire and the East Midlands a more productive place. To help organisations who are tackling societal problems with knowledge exchange, to improve and get a better society for the region and nationally.

“But it's also important because those external organisations, through working with us, gain confidence in the University and are then more likely to work with us in other ways – with the careers and employability team, and with the apprenticeship team, to bring back opportunities for our students whilst they are studying, but also when they leave university, in terms of getting jobs.”

Rachel Mutters, Head of Careers & Employability at the University explains more about how students are benefitting from these external collaborations and why that’s good for businesses too.

“Our courses embed employability into the curriculum. Through live briefs with local organisations, employability modules, and through working closely with academic colleagues, students learn to understand the recruitment process and develop their strengths and confidence to enhance their employability and increase the opportunities available to them.  

“Our Placement Academy and Finalist Futures programmes ensure students can source and secure a placement, as well as aiding their transition from student to work, by securing a highly skilled graduate role or embarking on further study.

“And that’s good news for local businesses and the economy. Regional NHS Trusts and councils are the largest recruiters of Derby graduates from a variety of courses, and many of our graduates contribute to the local economic growth through their own enterprise activity. Initiatives like our Innovation Hot House have been designed to help graduates develop their own new business ideas, network with relevant mentors and existing SME’s to turn their business plan into reality.”

A complex ecosystem

Professor Manning describes the work the University does with external organisations as “an ecosystem”, bringing benefits internally through students getting opportunities like this and externally to businesses that grow, create prosperity and build a better society.

“At Derby, we can present the art of the possible and act as a catalyst to drive change. A company will come to us for ideas, and we will we create and develop those ideas here at the University and put them through tests before the company can then commercialise them. Our academics are then very strong at evaluating these ideas to understand the best practice and what is needed.

“Our influence and know-how are then embedded into a product or a process for a business that's making a difference not only for them, but also in terms of their growth and the economic growth of the region.”

Portrait picture of Warren Manning

At Derby, we can present the art of the possible and act as a catalyst to drive change.

Professor Warren Manning
Provost Innovation and Research at the University of Derby

For the last six years, the University has collaborated with analytical laboratory, SureScreen Scientifics, and its sister company, SureScreen Diagnostics Ltd, on Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP), research, student and graduate recruitment and funding for projects.

This partnership work has enabled SureScreen to create a new revenue stream, new jobs, and most recently, to make a significant contribution to the global fight against Covid-19. David Campbell, Director of SureScreen Diagnostics, explains how the partnership has evolved: “We initially worked with the University to help fill some roles we had within the business in the research team, and we have since hired a number of Derby graduates very successfully, some via its employment schemes.

“Following this we learnt more about what the University had to offer, and as a result we started collaborating on a joint piece of DNA sequencing research, a new area of interest for us. This developed, and we were able to convert the science into a successful new commercial area of the business which we have run for many years now, and which continues to grow.   

“We have continued to work in other areas with the University including KTP projects for new technology development and in the future expect our relationship to continue in the same vein - working together on research projects, helping to support student learning where possible and hiring graduates into the business.”

A successful and mutually beneficial relationship has developed between the two organisations, but this wasn’t exactly what the business had expected from the beginning.

“Before working with the University, we didn’t appreciate there were so many areas of collaboration available for businesses, as you tend to just think of academia. The University explained the various collaboration opportunities and pointed us in the right direction of how we can work together.

“We believe working with the University is not only a valuable resource for businesses to succeed, but it is also important for the UK that businesses interact and support students and universities wherever possible for the future. 

“Recruitment continues to be a challenge for businesses in the current market given the low levels of unemployment, so it is crucial that businesses work closely with educational institutes, such as Derby, to ensure the right skills are being learnt and candidates are ready for the commercial world post studies, which will in turn have a very positive impact on productivity within the UK.”

David Campbell

We believe working with the University is not only a valuable resource for businesses to succeed, but it is also important for the UK that businesses interact and support students and universities wherever possible for the future.

David Campbell
Director of SureScreen Diagnostics

Addressing the next challenge

The government has announced its plan to grow the amount of investment into research and development significantly for 2022-2025, including the ambition to increase total R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. From a skills perspective, that's 200,000 more people working in research and development in the next five years. Where does that come from? And has the significant amount of skilled people who will be retiring soon, or have taken early retirement during the pandemic, been taken into consideration?

The region’s businesses were pushed to their limits during the pandemic and there is a sense that there is a real need to diversify the economy in Derby and Derbyshire. Part of the University’s role is to support the businesses that are growing now and to move them through the stages.

Working with Loughborough College, Loughborough University and the Derby College Group (DCG), the University was recently given the green light by the government for a new £13m East Midlands Institute of Technology (IoT). This will ensure that adults and young people have access to higher technical training and flexible courses in key subject areas, levelling up opportunities and supporting more people into higher skilled, higher wage jobs.

“Skills is probably the biggest challenge that we face as we diversify the economy. I am not convinced that in the past 10 to 20 years we've had the skills strategy for recruiting new and replacing retirees, so we're doing a lot of catching up,” adds Professor Manning.

“The Institute of Technology is a huge opportunity for us to tackle some of those skills problems and drive change because it works with business, the FE sector and the HE sector under one governance structure.

“Some businesses are comfortable when they get to a certain size, so there's also a piece of work to do around growing the ambition in the city and region that that we need to tackle, and crucially we need to address the skills needed for the economy of the future.”

Written by Gemma Bradley

looking towards the sky between two buildings

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