It’s 1982. You decide to go to see that new film that’s causing such a buzz – a sci-fi thing called Blade Runner. You take in its dystopic bleakness, its bioengineered synthetic humans, the flying cars, scary interrogations, the malignant corporate powers. You go home, chill down to Boy George on your new-fangled CD player, and think if 2019 is going to be like that, all power to Margaret Thatcher in making it the 1950s again.
Blade Runner’s imagined future was more or less now, today. It’s just a film, a piece of fiction, but it niggles at something within human nature – the dread that the future is going to be really horrible, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Blade Runner just happens to be one of Professor Suzi Derbyshire’s favourite movies. But she doesn’t share its nightmare imaginings. She is far more optimistic, although she readily agrees the future won’t be without its challenges.
“What is obvious is that employment is changing, the rate of change is exponential, and that we will be working with technology in ways we cannot even imagine,” says Derbyshire, DVC (Learning and Teaching) at QUT (Queensland University of Technology).
“We have a responsibility as educators to think about what that might mean, and to think about educational offerings that go beyond our ‘here’s a three or four year qualification’ way of thinking,
“We are seeing a tipping point emerging. The models we have employed in the past are not fully successful – they are not engaging our students in the ways that we would like to. And that’s because our students’ lives are changing and their expectations are changing.
“I really do think we have to reimagine what we do.”
Excellence in education and academic leadership
Derbyshire arrived at QUT in 2002 to head up the new fashion discipline and degree and has since carved out a reputation for excellence in education and academic leadership.
She has received a number of awards and recognitions, and is a Principal Fellow of The Higher Education Academy.
Derbyshire was an integral part of QUT’s establishment of a Creative Industries faculty, one of the first universities in the word to do so.
With Professor John Hartley as inaugural dean and encouraged by VC Professor Peter Coaldrake, the new-look concept brought together hitherto disparate areas such creative and performing arts, design, journalism, media, and entertainment into one thriving hub.
“Back then the idea of Creative Industries was very forward looking,” says Derbyshire.
“I think it took some time for the academics who had come from a more traditional approach to the performing and visual arts to come understand the full potential of the idea, but the students got it very quickly.”
Background and early years
Derbyshire was born and raised in North Wales, the daughter of parents who worked long and hard to ensure she and her younger sister attended a “good school”.
“I was tracking along quite well and was considered an academically bright student, and my father had aspirations for me to go into what he would have considered to be a proper and sensible kind of profession like law, medicine or even engineering,” she recalls.
But it was fashion that appealed to Derbyshire, and it was a subject she was determined to study at art school.
“I was very lucky that my mother actively supported me in that decision and accompanied me to the interview to get into art school. I am quite sure that when she broke the news to my father he did go into a dark room.
“I think he was probably very disappointed in me and very concerned genuinely that I had squandered the education that he had invested so much in.”
She won a place to study fashion at Central St Martin’s School of Art in London – now part of the University of the Arts London – and after graduating with first class honours began a career as a freelance womenswear designer, going on to work in London and Hong Kong.
“I was given lots of opportunities through that career,” she says. “But what I realised was that I was actually only using part of my brain and – as is often the case in creative disciplines – you don’t actually even get to use the creative part that much. So much of it is about the business side.”
During this time in the fashion industry a colleague and mentor recognised in her the potential to be a teacher and a coach.
“In a conversation she suggested that I might be good in education – and it was just one of those moments that sparked a change in my life.”
The move to higher education and ‘a baptism of fire’
At the age of 30 she took leave from her career to go back-packing around the world – including a visit to Australia. By the time she returned to London she was determined to move into higher education.
She secured a position as a design lecturer at the London College of Fashion and went on to become course director of its BA in Design Technology for the Fashion Industry.
“I was managing people who had far more experience than me, so that was a baptism of fire,” she recalls. “But the combination of opportunities and role responsibilities in higher education and leadership just absolutely hit the sweet spot for me.”
Then came a new opportunity – in 2002 she migrated to Australia to become the inaugural head of fashion at QUT.
“I was really starting from scratch so that gave me many opportunities to demonstrate my ability to start something from nothing,” she says.
“With a very small team we built the fashion degree quickly so that when we did the first annual report on course performance at QUT, the fashion degree was one of the highest performing courses in the university.”
It was also one of the first degrees in the faculty to require work integrated learning for all students, “and we were one of the first to launch a double degree with business – which was a no-brainer for me in terms of fashion”.
In 2007 she was appointed Portfolio Director for Fashion, Journalism, Media and Communication.
“It was the first opportunity for me to work with a broader set of academics and it was a high performing and a successful portfolio so it was a wonderful experience.”
Four years later, encouraged by then VC Peter Coaldrake, she took up the role of Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching).
“Hopefully it was not a risk on his part, but I was not an obvious choice,” she says. “It was a big lift for me from running a small portfolio to taking on that role. I think that what he saw was that I was someone who could help the university shift to 21st century education.”
Learning as ‘perpetual beta’
One of the advantages of having a background in fashion, she says, is that it is an industry that “thrives on change” and is always looking to the future with a degree of optimism.
But optimism isn’t enough – education has to “re-imagine” what it does when it comes to learning for the mid 21st century.
“Our students vary in age but the youngest of them are 17-18 years old,” she says.
“If you think about the life and career they have ahead, they could well be peaking in their careers in the middle of this century and working well into 2060-70.
“We need to think about what our courses and educational offerings should be equipping them with.”
In adapting to change, she says, one useful way of thinking is to imagine learners in a state of “perpetual beta” – a phrase she first heard used by her colleague Ruth Bridgstock.
“If you think about your life as being in perpetual beta, you are thinking about useful actions and choices and moving forward constantly. That is a more productive way of dealing day by day with the decisions you are facing.
“Dealing with change is not something like moving house where you just move and then you settle down again. It requires a constant process of learning.”
Challenges facing today’s students
Most young students, she says, are realistic and pragmatic, and many choose to study double degrees in line with their broad interests. They recognise that in future “they may well have to create work” and so have an increased interest in developing an entrepreneurial outlook.
They are also typically “highly connected” through technology and social media.
“They have a sense of each other, of their connectedness, and an understanding of the value of team work, and they have a genuine concern about the future of the planet.
“Obviously some of them are stressed and full of anxiety, but I think that when you give them the chance, their insight and their optimism about the contribution they can make is really quite profound.”
QUT, she says, is committed to lifting the capability around teaching and in supporting student success.
“I think that’s really going to build further the way that we conceptualise education and how to enable people to take advantage of it, and that will be challenging for all of us.”
QUT is partnering with students, she says, endeavouring to build relationships that engage them more actively in the co-creation of courses and services.
“This is quite challenging for some staff until they do it – and then it’s one of those threshold moments that they never want to go back from,” she says.
“In trying to understand what it is to be a 17-year-old, trying to understand what’s going to be the most effective ways to engage them and connect them to each other, you find that you are working with them and listening to them.”
QUT’s Real World Learning 2020 Vision derives from “really focusing on what we think our graduates will need in order to thrive in times of change”.
“It describes what we think are the most useful environments, and authentic learning and assessment, and seeks to value our learners and the knowledge and experience they bring,” she says.
She acknowledges there is “a kind of grief” among some academics in adjusting to new ways of teaching that have seen a decline in the use of the lecture theatre.
“The lecture theatre was a key space for them to reveal and share their expertise, and for that expertise to be recognised,” she says.
“But when you turn it around for our students, who seek to be known and to be heard, the traditional lecture doesn’t work for them. They are largely passive, nameless and unknown – so in a way those spaces are really disconnecting for both sides.”
Research and teaching
Derbyshire says it is “a fair enough perception” that in general universities tend to prioritise research over learning and teaching.
There remains a view that academics “only get promoted for research, and that research tops any kind of contribution you make in terms of teaching”.
There are more accepted measures of quality for research, and it is still difficult to measure the impact of teaching on learning, although “hopefully that is something that will change as we are able to see and understand student learning more”.
“I think that people feel that their contributions are not always captured or recognised.”
There exist “frameworks” such as the UK Professional Standards Framework and the HEA Fellowship scheme through which teaching academics and staff that support student learning “can share the narrative of their contribution and become part of a broad fellowship of people who share the same values and believe in the importance of education”.
Derbyshire adds: “I am not saying that the best of our research across the globe isn’t important and making a difference.
“But QUT, for example, has close to 50,000 students and we have hundreds of thousands of alumni who are making contributions to their disciplines, professions, communities, and their families – and so as a result of their education they are making a huge impact.
“And every day when an academic has an engagement with students, whether face to face or online, they have the potential to change people’s lives for the better.”