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Derby’s anchor

Louis Coiffait continues his university tour, this time visiting the University of Derby to learn what being a civic “anchor institution” actually means.
This article is more than 5 years old

The taxi driver taking me from the University of Nottingham to the University of Derby got lost.

The journey’s less than fifteen miles (or thirty minutes) along the A52, surely it’s not that unusual a trip to take? I tried not to read too much into it, the Midlands has always confused me too. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of local rivalry between Derby, Leicester and Nottingham. Perhaps he was just having a bad day and my imagination was overactive.


Derby boasts of being the UK’s most central city, far from the coast at “the heart of the country”, within its eponymous shire.

Both Derbyshire and Derby are pleasantly green. The North-Western third of the county includes the sparsely populated uplands of the Peak District, which became the UK’s first national park in 1951, following the 1932 Kinder Trespass campaign for public access to moorland. Likewise, the Pennine Way was the first long-distance footpath in the UK when it opened in 1965. The university’s main campus is green too and has easy access to the varied landscape surrounding it.

The Romans occupied the area in part due to the lead ore in the limestone hills, with later inhabitants also mining for coal, iron, and a wide range of other geological prizes. The last lead mine closed in 1939. Currently, gravel, gritstone and limestone rock continue to be quarried, mainly for use in construction. The university offers courses including construction management and property development, civil engineering, and construction materials.

There was a proliferation of hydropower mills in Derbyshire throughout the industrial revolution, many following the model of local industrialist and factory owner Richard Arkwright. Some of his pioneering water-powered designs can still be seen today at his Cromford Mill, part of Derwent Valley Mills, one of the UK’s 31 UNESCO-designated world heritage sites. The textile industry flourished in Derbyshire, with Glossop the largest printworks in the world at one point. These days the University of Derby offer includes a BA in fashion and fashion marketing, and an MA in fashion and textiles.

Modern Derbyshire’s economy features tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing – including Thorntons chocolates and the long-running Royal Crown Derby porcelain company. It’s where Buxton water is bottled and is home to several reservoirs, a network of canals, and rivers including the Trent, Dove and Derwent.

Tourists and outdoor enthusiasts have long flocked to the area’s stunning countryside and quaint little Victorian spa towns, such as Buxton, Matlock and Bakewell. This is literally Jane Austen country, with its romantic wild moors and country mansions featuring in films and literature, including Austen’s Pemberley house being based on Chatsworth Hall. Inconceivably, much of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride was filmed here.

There are just over a million people in the county, 96% of which are white, with South Asians the next biggest group at 2.3%. The city of Derby, with about quarter of a million people, is considerably more diverse (e.g. 12.6% Asian) and younger than its surrounding county, as well as UK averages.


Historic Derby was part of the Roman empire, then the Viking Danelaw, and then the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia. The etymology of the name Derby is contested, with the Romans calling the settlement “Derventio”, and it’s Viking name “Deoraby” meaning “Village of the Deer” in Danish.

In the 17th century, Derby was a successful base for Parliamentary forces against the Royalists during the English civil war. A century later, Bonnie Prince Charlie abandoned his march South for the British crown, turning around near Derby for the long trudge back up to Scotland.

Later, Derby became a market and then a county town, expanded throughout the industrial revolution and gained city status in 1977. All Saints Church was designated Derby Cathedral in 1927, and its bell tower has homed a pair of peregrine falcons for 12 years, complete with their own live webcams. The old cathedral quarter is vibrant and arty, with some university accommodation opening there in 2016.

Derby sits on the banks of the River Derwent, in the southern part of Derbyshire, is surrounded by green belt land, and has an unusually high proportion of parks, including Derby Arboretum – England’s first public park (and apparently the inspiration for Central Park in New York).

Derby had a key role in the industrial revolution. In 1717 it was the site of the first water-powered silk mill in Britain (possibly the first factory), and the first commercially successful water-powered cotton spinning mill (Arkwright’s mill nearby at Cromford), which partly automated the production of textiles such as stockings. In 1833, the Silk Mill Lock-Out across Derby’s textile mills was Britain’s first major industrial dispute. In those days “apprentices” as young as four were taken from London poorhouses to bolster the workforce. Now the university offers seven degree apprenticeships of different varieties, cybersecurity to engineering, and with plans to expand as employers need.

Derby has also been a centre for advanced manufacturing since the Victorian period, helping to produce trains and then planes. Despite its industrial base, Derby suffered relatively light damage during the two world wars. Today it hosts the Railway Technical Centre for rail research, the Derby Litchurch Lane Works (for many years the UK’s only train manufacturer, now owned by Bombardier Transportation), the headquarters of aero-engine/nuclear manufacturer Rolls-Royce, and the headquarters of automobile producer Toyota Manufacturing UK. Those four employers alone have over 22,000 staff, with the university working with each, for instance by tailoring courses to meet specific skills needs.

It’s estimated that about £4bn of investment has gone into Derby over the last decade, with a further £2.3bn earmarked for the near future. Almost 12% of the Derby workforce is involved in hi-tech roles, four times the national average. The city also has relatively high salaries due to the number of engineering and professional staff.

Derby was also the location of Core Design, the computer games company behind Tomb Raider, with a section of the city’s inner ring road named Lara Croft Way in 2010. More recently, local Candy Crush millionaire Mel Morris bought Derby County FC. The university offers courses in computer game programming, modelling, animation, and computer science.

Other famous people with Derby links include landscape artist Joseph Wright, evolutionary theorist Herbert Spencer, bouncing bomber Barnes Wallis, and the founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale. Last year, around 1,200 people went through the university’s eleven nursing courses.

The city’s emblem is the Derby Ram, which comes from a centuries-old folk song and gives the football team its nickname. Bizarrely, Derby also has baseball connections, with the dedicated Baseball Ground stadium built in 1890 by local industrialist Francis Ley in an (unsuccessful) attempt to introduce the sport to the UK. It ended up being used by “the rams” for over a hundred years instead, before being demolished fifteen years ago. The inventor of the hotdog – Harry Stevens – was also from Derby.

University of Derby

Originally founded as a schoolmistress training college in 1851, some of the (many) subsequent institutional incarnations included Derby College of Art and Technology, High Peak College, and Derby Lonsdale College of Higher Education. During the 1980s the latter’s graduates received their degree certificates at a University of Nottingham ceremony. The University of Derby started its modern manifestation with university status in 1992.

In addition to buildings in Derby, Buxton and Chesterfield, the main Kedleston Road campus sits on a hill, just North of Derby. It’s a modern glass and steel complex, looking down over sports grounds and Markeaton Park with its pretty lake.

The university’s Buxton campus consists of the stunning 44.2m diameter Devonshire Dome event space, built in 1779 by the 5th Duke of Devonshire. It remains the largest unsupported dome in Europe, weighs 560 tonnes, and – being designed for 120 horses – it is probably the most over-the-top rich man’s former stable in the world. The university’s 2001 decision to purchase this – at the time mothballed – Grade II* listed building continues to make a major contribution to local culture, heritage and the economy. After a five-year and £11m restoration programme, the dome was officially re-opened in 2006, with a range of FE and HE courses now delivered on-site in the restaurant, spa, and salon. It’s hosted BBC Question Time and a Hollyoaks “celebrity” wedding.

The University of Derby has offered further education (FE) through (what is now) Buxton & Leek College since 1998 and is an approved partner for Derby College. The university validates higher-level qualifications for both colleges, offering students a place at its graduation ceremony. This gives locals the opportunity to study from level 1 through 7 and beyond, all with one institution. The university stepped in when it looked like the original college (and it’s strong reputation for hospitality courses) would go under due to funding challenges.

The university also acquired Derby Theatre from Derby City Council in 2012 after it ran into financial trouble. It’s run as a professional theatre serving the local community and as a teaching and learning centre. Arts Council England is funding a three-year pilot there of a learning theatre model. The university has also been a partner of the international photography festival FORMAT for the past 14 years.

The university’s £12m STEM Centre was opened last year to better meet the needs of local employers, offering advanced facilities for teaching practical subjects such as motorsport manufacturing, mechanical, civil, electrical and electronic engineering.

The latest estimates note that the University of Derby has an annual economic impact of £659m. Launched in 2014, its Invest to Grow funding scheme has helped create over 1,000 jobs in growth sectors across the East Midlands.

Today, the university has over 27,000 students, of which 14,000 are undergraduates. Around 3,500 study through University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL), with distance learning first offered by the university 17 years ago and further expansion planned. On-site, students can even get loan laptops from vending machines.

It’s very much a comprehensive university, with an almost completely even mix of POLAR quintiles. Indeed, 19.6% of students are black and minority ethnic (BME).

The offer includes online short courses, undergraduate degrees, masters programmes, and – more recently – seven degree apprenticeships. More apprenticeships are planned now that the initial infrastructure is in place. Employers are explicitly invited to work with the university to develop company-specific courses and materials.

Teaching and learning by doing

The university’s Latin motto experientia docet (experience is the best teacher) explains much about its approach. Courses tend to be vocationally oriented, with many accredited by professional bodies such as the British Psychological Society, the Institute of Hospitality, and the Royal College of Nursing.

June Hughes, the secretary and registrar, explains that although the University of Derby is focused on “industry-relevant expert teaching” and clearly very proud of its 2017 teaching excellence framework (TEF) gold award, it is also building up its research capabilities in key areas. Three quarters of its research was rated at least “internationally significant” in REF 2014, with notable strengths in psychology, computing, and informatics.

The university has invested over £200m in profession-specific facilities over the last decade, including a mock crown courtroom, police questioning rooms, a spa, sports facilities, a simulation NHS hospital ward, a restaurant, and – my personal favourite – a crime scene “forensic house” complete with “blood splatter room”. I thought back to my own student days moving between the library, lecture hall, and seminar room with textbooks and highlighters the flashiest bit of kit at my disposal.

It was a busy open day as I was guided around the main campus. I met the Union of Students, lots of inquisitive prospective students and their families, and came across a combine field emission scanning electron microscope called X-Max used for such things as precisely testing the tensile strength of different materials – useful if you’re teaching students how to design a bridge, skyscraper, or prosthetic limb.

The financial markets lab, sponsored by Bloomberg, looks like a typical City office with multiple screens, colourful trading keyboards and ticker displays – teaching successive cohorts of students how to trade stocks and shares. I wonder how provision will evolve given this is one of those careers often listed as under direct threat from artificial intelligence (AI).

Mental health

Another area of pride among those I met is the university’s commitment to mental health and wellbeing. Gareth Hughes, an ex-NHS psychotherapist and the research lead for student wellbeing, talked me through the institutions’ approach.

In addition to having experienced clinical staff on campus, his team partners with teaching staff including involvement in pedagogical approaches. They also conduct research themselves; to understand what’s effective, add to the knowledge base, and establish credibility with their colleagues. They are currently working on a range of significant projects with external partners such as Universities UK and Student Minds.

Despite an increase in mental health declarations at the university (as with most others), a combination of new research, service restructures, clinical interventions, and a successful outreach programme has helped the Mental Health and Psychological Wellbeing team at Derby to reduce waiting times for students accessing mental health support. The team has implemented a comprehensive strategy addressing mental health as an institution-wide issue, with proactive interventions provided to students from the outset.

Opportunity knocking

Derbyshire (including Derby) has a comprehensive schools system with no selective grammar schools and only a few private independent schools. Overall, it is about at national averages on most performance measures, though this obviously hides much variety.

Krisha Bainham, the head of widening access, explained that her team last year reached nearly 23,000 school students in years 7 to 11 through a range of activities under the “Progress to Success” banner. Target groups include low participation neighbourhoods, those with no parental experience of higher education, those eligible for free school meals or the pupil premium, white working class boys, BME students, looked-after children, and those with disabilities.

In 2017 the university launched the Equality and Social Mobility Unit, with a remit of improving social mobility across the region and conducting academic research, as well as championing the issue across the university.

Derby is one of the twelve “Opportunity Areas” first identified by the Department for Education (DfE) as a social mobility “cold spot”. Kathryn Mitchell, the vice chancellor, chairs its board with other university staff appointed to sub-groups. This work involves raising the aspirations and attainment of Derby’s under-19s by coordinating the efforts of education providers, employers and others. One intervention has been the hiring of a bid manager for funding applications, a time-consuming and specialist task that can stretch busy school leaders. The university also recently set a target to encourage more staff to be school governors.

Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire Collaborative Outreach Programme (DANCOP) is one of the 29 partnerships comprising the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP), with £60m per annum of funding from the Office for Students (OfS) until September 2019 to support increased progression for young people who achieve in their GCSEs, and those not progressing as expected. This partnership (led by University of Derby), is between three local universities and six colleges, offering secondary schools and colleges across the two counties a range of resources and activities, such as parent events, assemblies, and course-choosing sessions.

The university is also one of 11 higher education institutions and further education colleges taking part in the Higher Horizons+ programme, which encourages collaboration between education providers, local schools, employers, and other stakeholders. Again, this is part of NCOP.

Mitchell pointed out that the NCOP schemes don’t focus on students under 14-15 years of age, so she’s ensuring that the opportunity area and NCOP programmes work together. I mused on how coordinated efforts were at the other end within the DfE and OfS.

I had a distinct sense of déjà vu as Mitchell described some of the complex local politics – dealing with two county councils, two city councils, the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and the firing-up “Midlands Engine”. Derbyshire has a complex three-tier local government system, with Derbyshire county council (based in Matlock), eight district councils, and a unitary local authority for the city of Derby. Derbyshire also retains “ceremonial county” (or lieutenancy area) status. Yes, it even has a high sheriff.

The acquisitions of the theatre, the Devonshire Dome, and the merger with (what is now) Buxton & Leek College, as well as the active involvement in local schools, illustrates just some of what being an “anchor institution” actually means. It’s also clear that courses and research tend to be geared towards local employer needs, rather than just league tables. The university seems to be successfully putting the funding and policy jigsaw pieces together for the people of Derby. I got a strong sense it appreciated the history of its place but was working hard with an eye to the future.

2 responses to “Derby’s anchor

  1. A great article Louis. You have really got under the skin of the Derby region. Worth noting though that the northern part of the county look towards Sheffield in many ways rather than perhaps Derby. an interesting slip in identities there.

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