Making the civic dream a reality

This summer the University and its partners celebrated the launch of the Civic University Agreement - here, we take a look at how staff and students are helping to bring the Agreement to life. 

15 June 2022 marked a pivotal moment in the University of Derby’s calendar. It was the date the Civic University Agreement (CUA) was launched, three years (and a global pandemic) after a pledge had been made by Professor Kathryn Mitchell CBE DL, Vice-Chancellor of the University, to become a Civic University.

Stakeholders, many representing organisations that had pledged their support to the CUA by becoming one of its signatories, staff and students gathered at the University's Enterprise Centre to hear about how and why it had developed the CUA. Guests were treated to a showcase of Civic projects that are already making an impact, as well as a taste of what’s to come. They also had the opportunity to engage further through a series of installations set up to provide talking points and stimulate discussion.  

Commenting at the time of launch, Professor Mitchell said: “The University of Derby has always been Civic – educating, innovating, creating, making, and inspiring, but this is the first time we have explicitly set out our Civic intentions and articulated the overall impact made by the University and its staff and students. 

“Through our Civic University Agreement, we are making a clear statement of intent as to how we will approach our Civic role moving forward. However, the ambitions we have set out need support from others if we are to achieve them and I am overwhelmed by the positive response from the organisations we approached to be signatories and who will be alongside us on this important journey.” 

A group of people standing in front of a circus tent
The Over to You team and performers. Photo credit: Grant Archer.

What was clear from the launch is that the Civic ambition the University has is significant and it will undoubtedly take the collective might of its signatories, and broader stakeholder network, to achieve it.  

Dr Rhiannon Jones, Associate Professor (Civic) explains how its delivery is being approached: “The CUA was deliberately designed around five goals, providing us with a clear focus and sense of direction from the outset. These goals were developed following extensive consultation and are designed to respond directly to some of the key challenges and opportunities there are within the city and county. 

“Sitting underneath these goals is a series of objectives and an indication of how these will be achieved. The University is already engaged in a broad and diverse range of projects and initiatives that align to one or more of these goals but having them in place also makes it easier to identify what projects we should be supporting as we look further ahead.” 

The goals set out within the CUA are: 

Many University staff members, as well as students, are engaged in Civic projects that support these goals, working closely with professional networks across the city and county to ensure a joined-up approach and maximum impact.  

Rhiannon Jones from the University looking into the air

The University is already engaged in a broad and diverse range of projects and initiatives that align to one or more of these goals but having them in place also makes it easier to identify what projects we should be supporting as we look further ahead.

Dr Rhiannon Jones
Associate Professor (Civic)

Over to you

One such project is Over to You, produced by DerbyCAN (part of University-owned Derby Theatre) to place community voice at the heart of arts and culture in Derby.  

Billed as an extraordinarily unique event, in September Over to You brought together communities, artists and a circus tent set in Markeaton Park to celebrate the city of Derby, local people and performance. 

Guests were treated to a double bill of performances – from Revel Puck Circus, one of the UK’s most exhilarating and leading contemporary circus companies, and several local groups including Derby Pride, Derby Refugee Solidarity and the Chinese Welfare Centre. 

Sam Rushton, Producer at DerbyCAN, explains how the project came about: “We can see the huge potential that Derby has but also noticed that there are dispersed small pockets of niche talent that get side lined. We wanted to bring together as many different communities as possible to highlight the rich variety that Derby has to offer, redistribute the opportunities to a wider network and for people to meet and connect.” 

This investment in culture and commitment to providing local communities and performers with the opportunity to develop new skills, take to the stage or view a live performance has had a real positive impact.   

Sam adds: “Local community members took part in paid mentoring and training placements, skilled workers were paid to work on the physical building and pack down of the site and local people were involved in press, radio and marketing for the event. This ignited, for many people who took part, a chance to develop a path they have always been interested in but never knew where to start, gave newfound confidence to local communities and some a project to focus on in creating arts and crafts, where they could see their work proudly displayed, bringing life and colour to their city. 

“For performers it was a chance to network, feel like they matter to the city and be recognised by their city for their city. For some it was the biggest performance of their career so far and the next step up for building their profile, and for others it was the value and pride of performing within their own community. For a lot of the performers who made work especially for the festival it became a family, a belonging and a recognition that they had something worth being celebrated.”  

Working for DerbyCAN, Sam certainly has a good grasp of the importance of investing in arts and culture and the difference the CUA can make to this agenda, adding: “Investing in culture makes a huge difference to mental health, aspirations and the belief that different people have unique talents and skills that can be combined to make something bigger. This makes a difference as people feel important, that they have a place regardless of status, economic value or power, and that they are recognised by the city they live in and by the people of the city for what they have to offer.”  

Group of people at a circus standing in a circle raising their arms
Individual at circus swinging across stage on a rope in front of audience

Global learning comes to Derby

Another Civic project that recently took place is the Global Learning Festival (GLF), aimed at providing unity and connection to communities all over the world. Having recently joined the UNESCO Learning City Network, Derby was a host city and the University was involved in the delivery of this event.  

Bill Esmond, Associate Professor at the University of Derby, who led the project, comments: “The GLF allowed people to see what's been happening with learning in Derby itself as a result of the Opportunity Area and other work that the University and its partners carry out in their Civic role. In addition, it enabled people in Derby to make contact with others in 'learning cities' around the world, where they were able to find out about the different ways that people, young and older, can access educational opportunities in formal settings and informally.” 

The event was based at Derby Theatre and featured a live audience, as well as opportunities for people to take part online, enjoy live performances and engage in discussions and debates. 

It’s important for the University to be involved in initiatives such as the GLF, and to be recognised as an organisation committed to providing life-long learning opportunities through the UNESCO Learning City membership. 

Bill adds: “Colleagues are rightly proud of the range of initiatives we have taken part in which include stopping school exclusions, providing sanctuary for refugees and helping young people flourish creatively by involving them in co-creation and so on. Much of this was on display at the GLF and we welcomed the opportunity to speak to people in more detail about what’s taking place.  

“We also used the event to engage in serious discussion about the huge problems facing young people, especially in the city, and how educational and civic organisations can help address these. And we were able to reach out across the world through the global network to find out about others' solutions and the work they are doing to make learning available to millions across the world who are disadvantaged and denied access.” 

Bill Esmond from the University standing while speaking to someone

Colleagues are rightly proud of the range of initiatives we have taken part in which include stopping school exclusions, providing sanctuary for refugees and helping young people flourish creatively by involving them in co-creation and so on.

Bill Esmond
Associate Professor of Education and Employment

Aspiring scholars aim high

Derby Scholars is a collaborative outreach programme between the University of Derby and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to support less advantaged high attaining students from Derby city to develop the knowledge, understanding and skills to successfully apply for highly competitive universities.  

The programme has operated for two previous academic years, albeit impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.  The 2021-22 academic year marked the programme's third year and saw Murray Edwards College Cambridge join for the first time to support some of the activities. 

After seed funding from the Opportunity Area for the pilot programme, and subsequent funding from DANCOP in 2020-21, the cost of running the programme has been embedded in the University of Derby’s budget, with shared costs with the University of Oxford. 

In total 103 Year 12s and 158 Year 9s from across the city have been supported over three years of Derby Scholars and this is set to continue as the scheme grows in popularity.  

Commenting on its success, Luke Gordon-Calvert, Senior Widening Access Officer who runs the scheme, said: “The Derby Scholars programme has opened the doors to so many opportunities that pupils within the city have been able to access. It has been fantastic to see the impact the programme has had on young people who, through taking part, gain confidence, learn new skills and see things from a completely different perspective, especially when they realise that they too could go to Oxford or Cambridge university. 

“Derby Scholars really has made a positive impact, with data indicating an increase of applications and offers to Oxford from Derby City, a third of which went to Derby Scholars who comprise the most disadvantaged students in the applicant pool. Having this experience is invaluable and we can’t wait to see what great things our Derby Scholars go on to do next.” 

Individual holding a mic on stage in front of an audience
Luke Gordon-Calvert with Aimen Sadeedi, a Derby Scholar and student from the Bemrose School, at the CUA launch

Derby’s Civic & Community Committee

These are just a few examples of a range of projects that come under the CUA umbrella. From supporting businesses to incorporate green practices into their operations and educating the health and social care workforce of the future, to raising aspirations through outreach activity and working with Rolls-Royce to deliver apprenticeships that address the UK’s nuclear skills needs, the wealth of work taking place across the University, and with partners from the city and county, is vast. 

Keeping track of it all can be a challenge, which is one of the reasons why the University's Civic & Community Committee was formed. While it was initially focused on ensuring the development of the CUA, it is now providing a level of governance around its implementation and the impact it has.  

Dr Jones explains: “The Committee comprises a number of University colleagues and external representatives with a Civic interest. It provides a forum for us to share best practice, provide updates on key Civic projects and hold each other to account. We’ll also be monitoring the impact that the projects developed as part of the CUA have and reporting on these so that people can understand the progress that’s being made and the benefits that are being realised across the city and county as a result.” 

If you would like to find out more about the Civic University Agreement, or have an idea or project you’d like to share, then contact the Civic team on  

Group of people standing beside each other holding up a booklet for the Civic University Agreement

With Over to You judged a resounding success there are plenty of ideas in the pipeline, but as the main objective of DerbyCAN is that it’s directed by the people of Derby, ambassadors and other partners, Sam would love for people to get in touch with their thoughts on what they would like DerbyCAN to deliver on next, or what opportunities could be put in place that would be helpful to them. You can do this by emailing Sam on 

For further information, visit DerbyCAN's For Everyone page on the Derby Theatre website or follow them on social media @derby_Can on twitter and Instagram.

Written by Rosie Marshalsay