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Pauper with a point to prove

Extending opportunity, maintaining quality and attacking new markets - Derby is answering its critics. Tony Tysome reports.

Managers at Derby University are ready for the quality inspectors. In fact, though they would say it is not by design, they have never been more ready.

The imminent inquiry by the Quality Assurance Agency into Derby's operations in Israel has raised a mood of proud defiance and studied calm at the university. The implications of such a visit by the QAA prey on vice-chancellors' worst fears since the disaster brought about at Thames Valley University. A QAA investigation has since become associated with faulty management, alleged cover-ups and shoddy standards - all of which Derby has been accused of in the case of its Tel Aviv venture.

Derby vice-chancellor Roger Waterhouse insists: "While what happened at Thames Valley University definitely sent a shock wave around the system, I don't think it had much effect here, since we are quite different from TVU."

Nevertheless, the similarities proved irresistible to some union leaders during a long, drawn-out dispute over lecturers' pay at the university, only recently resolved. Like TVU, Derby is a pioneering new university that is possibly even more on-message than the government in its approach to higher education, with widening participation, open and flexible access, a strong regional presence, equal opportunities, lifelong learning and graduate employability at the top of its agenda. A dynamic management style that has seen through rapid expansion has brought it into conflict with the unions, whose representatives have accused the vice-chancellor of failing to listen to his staff. Questions have been raised over quality and allegations of management impropriety have been made.

But Derby is determined not to be the next TVU, and believes it has many good reasons to argue against that association. Professor Waterhouse has extended an "open door" policy to the QAA, following an internal investigation into the Israel allegations that he says found them to be "untrue and without foundation".

"We have invited the QAA in because we are entirely confident we are squeaky clean. We did not respond for a long time because the person making the allegations has an industrial tribunal pending. Hopefully what will come out of the QAA investigation is a balanced view of events," he said.

Derby makes an easy target for the kind of charges being levelled at it, since they take aim at the heart of what the university is all about - bringing quality higher education to the masses on a shoestring budget. With a 1999 funding council grant of Pounds 28 million, a research income of Pounds 1.7 million, and an operating surplus of only Pounds 8,000, Derby is one of the poorest universities in the sector. Only Luton University gets less grant per student. New targeted funding initiatives designed to encourage widening participation, collaboration with employers and lifelong learning projects have helped, but, as pro vice-chancellor Jennifer Fry says: "Just because the agenda has shifted more in our direction, it does not mean there will be a huge shift in resources that is going to make us rich. When we get targeted funding it just means we are able to do some of the things we wanted to do anyway."

Professor Waterhouse is aware that some critics say Derby's pauper status is largely down to its breakneck expansion from 5,500 full-time and 2,500 part-time students in 1992-93 to 9,000 full-time and 4,000 part-time now.

He said: "If you asked certain people at the funding council why Derby is so poorly funded, they would say the university brought it upon itself by expanding so quickly. But we wanted to extend opportunity, which implied growth. We knew when we went for expansion that we would have to be extremely efficient, and that we would have to put quality high on the agenda since we were starting as a low-status university."

It has become easier for Derby to defend itself on the latter point, due to recent quality inspection successes that have made earlier dumbing-down claims look like cheap shots. A "perfect" 24 out of 24 for pharmacy (turned around from a "failing" 16), two 22s for biology and subjects allied to medicine, and a 21 for mathematics (a higher grade than Oxford University), must have finally put Derby in the QAA's good books.

Maintaining high standards, however, is expensive. It would be difficult to blame Derby for seeking out new sources of funding. In the university's annual review for last year, deputy vice-chancellor Michael Hall notes that despite the effects of the funding council's convergence exercise, which endeavours to adjust under-funding towards the national average, government funding for Derby rose by just 1.3 per cent from 1998 to 1999. By contrast, in the same period income from overseas students increased from Pounds 1.7 million to Pounds 2.5 million. The annual review says a franchise agreement with partners in Israel to run an MEd programme was "an important example of growth in this area".

Even some leading representatives of Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union whose evidence-gathering has prompted the QAA inquiry, acknowledge Derby's commitment to opening up higher education and suggest it may have inadvertently fallen foul of the resulting problems.

Tom Wilson, head of Natfhe's university department, said: "In many ways Derby is a brave institution. It has done a lot of pioneering work in a community that was deprived of higher education. The problem is that, perhaps like many other new universities, it expanded too quickly, maybe because it had to, then when the slow-down came, it found itself strapped for cash. If the QAA inquiry finds that Derby did not follow its own procedures in Israel, the explanation may be that people had their backs against the wall as far as their budget was concerned."

Professor Waterhouse refuses to moan about the money. He shrugs off the fact that Derby even appears to have been passed over by the funding council's e-university project, despite being one of the most advanced institutions in the sector in its use of technology for learning. A "University of Derby Online" initiative, which aims to create a "virtual mirror of the university's infrastructure" and make every course and service provided by the university available electronically and therefore more accessible and flexible, pervades the work of teaching staff and the student experience. Banks of computers are constantly in use in a state-of-the-art learning centre on campus, which is the focal learning support centre for students. E-learning facilities serve local training clubs in shops, community centres, refurbished Victorian mills and a pub.

The range of provision is sewn together by a unique credit transfer system based on a further education model, making progression easier from the university's partner FE colleges right through to postgraduate level.

It has not been easy for Derby to stay ahead of the technological game that all universities have now been advised to play. Professor Waterhouse says there has been an "almost measurable" rise in student expectations year on year, which has meant the university is continually ploughing resources into new hardware and staff development.

He said: "In this context, I see the e-university as almost an afterthought. Pounds 50 million is a drop in the ocean - a symbolic gesture. If it goes to Oxford and Cambridge then good luck to them. Since we are coming from the client-driven end of the market, what we are delivering is much more likely to be taken up and used."

Chris O'Hagan, Derby's dean of learning development who has been responsible for seeing through many of the university's e-ventures, is less charitable about it. He said: "We have worked hard to ensure that the technology is core to what we are doing on campus. It would leave us feeling miffed if institutions that have turned their noses up at this were suddenly given millions to catch up."

Consolation came last week with the launch of a new Global University Alliance, of which Derby is a member, along with institutions in the Netherlands, Taiwan, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The alliance, with headquarters in Hong Kong and a partnership with online learning support company Next Ed, plans to target the Asian market with technology-supported distance-learning programmes from September.

In its widening international role it seems likely Derby will want to use a new Pounds 500,000 teleconferencing suite being built in the university's centre for educational development and media to broadcast live interactive lectures to Israel. Jennifer Fry says the global alliance is "a natural development from distributive learning locally". The suite will mean the university investing even more in staff training. It has already spent Pounds 500,000 on training projects requested by staff to help them cope with the technology-based approaches to teaching and computer-based assessment.

Professor O'Hagan said training helped overcome initial resistance among some staff to the technology.

"Some people in the institution thought technology was all we were about. But it is an expansion of methods, rather than a replacement. There were times when staff wondered about that approach, but I think they now feel more comfortable with it," he said.

Derby's distributive technology-based learning network helped its bid to host the South Derbyshire hub of the University for Industry. Pro vice-chancellor Freda Tallantyre said: "We have been very proactive about aligning ourselves with the UfI because of our work so far on distributive learning. We thought UfI could enhance our services in a dozen outreach centres with good-quality electronic materials. There was a certain amount of self-protection in it as well, since we did not want to lose what we had built up to UfI."

Ms Fry says that while opening up access for "non-traditional" students undoubtedly involves extra work and training, the end result is worth the effort. She recalls the university's last awards ceremony, where its chancellor Sir Christopher Ball invited graduates to put up their hands if they were the first in their family to go to university.

"It was wonderful to see so many hands, and to know that we are here to give people the chance and to see them succeed."

POSITIVE FORCE IN THE LOCAL COMMUNITY

Derby University is viewed with mixed feelings from theoutside. While its dispute with lecturers over pay has brought criticism,it is generally well regarded by local politicians andbusiness leaders.

Bob Laxton, MP for Derby North who sits on the university's court, described the pay dispute as"a running sore that had come to an ugly head on several occasions". But he said the university had had a "huge positive impact" on the local economy, and its presencehad helped convert many blighted buildings and sites.

Sue Davies, higher education representative for Natfhe's Midlands branch, said: "The vice-chancellor is not very good at listening to his staff. The enormous staff turnover in recent years must say somethingabout that."

But John Forkin, strategic director for Southern Derbyshire Chamber, said the university should be praised for playing a key role in helping local industries diversify from a heavy manufacturing base.

CUSTOMER RESPONSE

A THES straw poll of staff and students found managers at Derby University were running a tight but reasonably happy ship.

Most students liked the atmosphere and were happy with the teaching and facilities. Mark James, in the final year of a product design innovation degree, said: "The design capabilities and computing facilities are very good. Derby was my second choice, but it was a good choice. It has exceeded my expectations."

Adam Rasul, a first-year law student, said: "It has a very open feel about it. The court room is brilliant. The university is very comfortable to study in."

The main complaints were over gaining access to the heavily used computer facilities. Sarah Wilkins, a first-year tourism degree student, said: "The computer facilities are good, but at busy times it is difficult to find computer spaces.

All our assignments have to be word processed."

But students felt that if they had a complaint, it was listened to.

Victoria Ferrer, studying HND business management, said: "They make you feel like a customer - if you are not happy with a service you can complain and they will do something about it."

Staff were committed to the university's open access policy, and interested in the introduction of technology-based approaches to learning.

Alan McGowan, course leader in architecture, said: "It's a learning curve: we are doing it because we are interested. But it's sometimes a case of doing it before you find out whether it works."

Communication from management was seen as sometimes slow, and staff morale had been knocked by the dispute over pay. But the mood was generally positive.

Simon Lewis, programme leader for live performance technology, said: "There are times when communication is slow to trickle down. But the vice-chancellor knows his staff and he knows what's going on."

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