University Strategy Review, 2021: taking stock in a changing world

By Professor Hugh Brady and Professor Judith Squires

In 2015 we launched our University Vision and Strategy. This followed a period of collaborative consultation across our community which sought to capture the collective ambition and imagination of our staff, our students, and the wider Bristol family. Thousands of you engaged in that process, and tens of thousands of thoughtful comments were submitted which helped to shape the final outcome – a robust strategic plan that has enabled our community to achieve remarkable things.

To give just a few highlights:

  • We gave a clear commitment to education and the student experience, with the stated goal of assisting our students to develop their knowledge, skills, and adaptability, and to enhance their resilience. This saw us launch the Bristol Futures initiative and introduce a raft of new high-quality study skills courses, support, and personal development planning.
  • We set out to improve the way we provide pastoral support for our students. This was a huge strand of work involving a university-wide review of our wellbeing and mental health support, the launch of our staff and student mental health and wellbeing strategies, and the total overhaul of our support in residences, with the introduction of Residential Life services and the Student Wellbeing service.
  • We committed to significantly increasing the number of high potential students from local schools through our Bristol Scholars programme. Of the scheme’s first cohort, more than 20% have now concluded their studies with a first-class degree. We also committed to rolling out a new contextual offer system for high potential students from aspiring state schools. Today, more 70% of our intake are from state school, with more than 1,500 arriving from aspiring state schools.
  • We launched a new £1m Black Bristol Scholarship Programme which aims to support around 130 undergraduate and postgraduate Black students over the next four years. We also set out to provide support for students from underrepresented backgrounds while they are with us, with a tailored package of support and pastoral care. We have seen really important developments in this area, including the Be More Empowered (BME) for Success Programme which celebrates and supports our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students.
  • We wanted to make internationalisation even more central to our thinking and behaviour. In an increasingly competitive environment, between 2016/17 and 2020/21, our Overseas student population increased by 63%. Our continued relationship-building with leading institutions across the world has also yielded several new strategic partnerships, including the Perivoli Africa Research Centre and a bilateral arrangement with the University of Cape Town.
  • We aimed to increase the innovation potential of our graduates. We’ve done that in all sorts of ways, notably via our award-winning Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship which runs 4-year integrated masters’ degrees for undergraduates to study innovation, alongside their main discipline.
  • We said we wanted to nurture and grow our community of innovators and scholars in teaching and learning, and here, too, we’ve made huge progress. We launched our curriculum enhancement programme, our Student Fellows initiative, and the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching (BILT). BILT in particular has gone from strength to strength supporting our teaching community, particularly during last year’s pedagogical response to COVID-19.
  • We committed to remodelling the centre of our main campus to create a welcoming student-centred heart to our university. We’re really pleased with the progress the Campus Heart Programme has made to our enhanced sports centre and facilities, and the newly refurbished Senate House, proving important new living room, social and catering space at the heart of our campus. We have also recently secured planning permission for the New University Library.
  • We made it very clear we wanted to continue to compete successfully with the world’s leading research-intensive universities. To support this ambition, we established specialist research institutes (SRIs) to give greater external visibility to our world-leading specialist research programmes of scale. We have now launched seven SRIs which are all overseeing remarkable, cutting-edge research. In addition, we have seen clear benefits from strengthening our University Research Institutes. Notably, the impact of the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute on our COVID-19 research response has been most impressive.
  • We committed to creating 100 tenure-tracked Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowships for early and mid-career researchers to boost research and leadership capacity in areas where Bristol has established international leadership, or the capacity to develop international leadership. We have appointed 40 fellows to date.
  • We set out an ambition to collaborate more closely with regional industry to drive world leading innovation, economic growth, and job creation across our city-region. We’ve seen great progress here. SETsquared, for example, has been hugely successful and has been named the best university incubator in the world for 3 consecutive years. We’ve also secured significant funding for programmes such as MyWold and the Bristol Digital Futures Institute (BDFI), which has helped us develop partnerships with some of the world’s most innovative companies, including BT, Dyson, BBC, Airbus and Aardman, as well as local government and community organisations.
  • We wanted to mainstream sustainability in the minds of all our students and nurture future leaders in sustainable thinking. In April 2019 we became the first UK university to declare a climate emergency, reaffirming our commitment to taking action on climate change. We also aspired to promote policy innovation in sustainability through further development of our Bristol Cabot Institute for the Environment. This has facilitated and accelerated the translation of research outputs into real societal and policy impact, including through our close working connections with COP, the Government Office for Science and BEIS, and our membership of the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group.
  • We committed to improving the quality of two-way communication between the leadership team and colleagues across the University. This has seen us introduce new feedback tools, including the initiation of regular all-staff live streams which have been positively received across the organisation.

An evolving higher education context
As a leadership team, we regularly monitor the University’s progress in relation to the 2016 strategy. The above highlights demonstrate that colleagues across our community have done an outstanding job of delivering against the targets and ambitions we set ourselves. But while much of the 2016 strategy still stands, we must recognise just how rapidly our external environment has changed in recent years.

This change has been driven by the impact and fallout of the global pandemic, Brexit and the UK’s new relationship with our European partners, the uncertain higher education, research and innovation policy landscape, and a funding environment which requires us to do more for less each year as home undergraduate fee income is continually squeezed in real terms. This latter challenge could be further exacerbated by the government’s forthcoming response to the Augur Review of post-18 education, which recommended a cut in tuition fees from £9,250 to £7,500. A change in research funding policy has also added new emphasis to place, regional research links, economic development, job creation and the levelling up agenda.

In response to these and other challenges, the coming months present a timely opportunity to ask ourselves what is within our power to do to mitigate the risks we face? Equally, what can we do to give ourselves the best chance of seizing the new global opportunities on offer?

Standing still and maintaining the same size, shape and institutional portfolio is not a credible response to these questions, particularly as our international competitors continue their rapid advance. We must instead think very carefully about different ways to deliver on our ambitions.

Our collective challenge, then, is to build on the success of the 2016 strategy by adapting it for our times.

Continuity of ambition
Our ambition to continue competing successfully with the world’s top research-intensive universities remains undiminished. We also want to establish Bristol as a progressive standard bearer with regard to academic values, inclusivity, and culture; and to re-claim our position in the world top 50.

Financial security is key to achieving our ambitions. On this point, we must recognise that, in comparison to many of our peers, Bristol is a relatively small institution. While we all value our strong disciplinary mix and the wide-ranging benefits of being a comprehensive university, with all the opportunities for multi and inter-disciplinary research and education that this affords, it is clear we are not an optimum ‘shape’ in terms of creating the high financial margins needed to achieve our ambitions.

If we look at higher ranked Top 50 international (and UK) universities, most have more income to invest, particularly for research, because their student body is larger and more international. Indeed, most of our peers benefit from being either very ancient, or very large, well endowed, or capital city-based. So how can we best achieve our ambitions in the face of such stiff competition at home, and around the world?

At the most basic level, we must continue to be unswerving in our commitment to excellence in research, education, professional services and operations. This is, of course, the founding principle of most top ranked universities. It will not, on its own, be enough to secure our future. Indeed, there are certain fundamentals common to all successful higher education institutions, and the core c75% of activities in top ranked research intensives look very similar. To continue competing with the best in the world, our play book will have to be somewhat different and distinctive to our own particular context. In this respect, we are very fortunate.

Relative to many of our peers, we are situated in one of the UK’s most creative and liveable cities, at the heart of one of Europe’s most vibrant knowledge- and technology-intensive regional ecosystems. We are a values-driven organisation, with a strongly collegial and inclusive culture. We also have a proud, productive, and mutually beneficial track record of partnership with our region’s citizens, communities, cultural organisations, industrial base and public institutions (e.g. Bristol City Council, the West of England Combined Authority, the NHS, GCHQ, the Met Office, Bristol Old Vic, Bristol Ideas, CARGO, and many more).

It will be the c25% of our play book that is distinctive which will determine our future success. And it is how we leverage that distinctiveness – what we invest in, how we build on our strengths, and who we partner with at home and abroad – which will give us the comparative advantage we need to compete with our better-resourced peers.

Crucially, to continue competing successfully with the best in the world, we must be honest in recognising the need to generate more income to reinvest in our university’s future. World-class education and research is a ‘deep pockets’ game. In our diminishing UK funding setting, this means growing high margin unregulated fee income, including through further increasing the proportion of international and postgraduate students.

With the changing social, political and economic landscape at the front of our minds, it’s time to look again at the 2016 Vision and Strategy, revaluate our competitive and comparative advantages and focus on the things that really build pride in our institution, and which are specific to Bristol.

To this end, we have developed a revised Vision and Strategy White Paper which proposes our strategic direction for 2021-2030.

This document sets out where we think our strategic resources and efforts could best be directed to achieve our shared ambitions. It has been developed with input from Senate, Deans, Heads of School, University managers and several forums, including the anti-racism steering group and the new University Civic Engagement Committee. Importantly, the White Paper should be seen as an evolution of the 2016 Vision and Strategy, rather than a re-write.

The White Paper
The document is comprised of three pillars, three enablers and three cross-cutting themes. Together, these elements set out our proposed priorities and provide a roadmap for achieving our collective goals.

Pillars

The strategic pillars are the core of what we want to achieve. They include:

  • World-leading research and innovation with global impact
  • An inspiring education and transformative student experience in a changing world
  • The transformative power of the global civic university

Enablers

The strategic enablers are the prerequisites we need to achieve our ambitions. They include:

  • Inspiring and supporting our people
  • Creating a world-class campus
  • Investing in our future

Cross-cutting themes

These themes are intimately connected and embedded to all areas of our work, and to everything we do. They include:

  • Developing internationalisation and global relations
  • Embedding environmental sustainability
  • Fostering equality, diversity and inclusion

What’s next?
Importantly, this strategy review is an iterative process, and the White Paper is by no means a final document. As we head through June and July, this is your opportunity to ‘stress-test’ each statement within the White Paper and to engage in the big questions that will determine the future of our institution. If you think the priorities identified are not the right ones to achieve our shared ambitions, we want to hear alternative suggestions. You can give us your feedback via the Strategy Consultation form.

We also have upcoming live stream sessions dedicated to each pillar, enabler and cross-cutter. This will provide an opportunity to hear more about the rationale behind each section of the White Paper from the individual institutional leads, and to ask questions. Theme leads will also join upcoming faculty and divisional meetings, where they can.

Once we have received and reviewed your collective feedback at the end of July, we will develop the final iteration of the revised Vision and Strategy, ensuring it is articulated in a way that resonates with all our stakeholders. It will then be considered for approval by UEB, Senate and, finally, the Board of Trustees at its November meeting.

In the meantime, please do take a look at the White Paper, join our dedicated live stream sessions, and use the feedback form to share your views. Thank you for your support and engagement with this most important exercise.

Combating COVID-19 together

It’s no exaggeration to say our institutional response to COVID-19 in March was heroic! Up until then, if anyone had suggested that we could move our entire curriculum and student support online within a matter of weeks, I would have doubted their sanity. However, that is exactly what we achieved together so that our students could progress and, in the case of final year students, graduate.

After a long summer of extensive planning and collaboration by colleagues across the University, we welcomed students back to campus following yet another herculean effort! We had implemented a comprehensive reconfiguration of our estate, introduced new safety, health and behavioural measures and developed a strong, research-rich blended learning offer.

What followed, of course, was even more challenging. Regrettably, like nearly every university, Bristol saw a wave of student infections at the start of term. In response, we moved quickly to implement our COVID containment plans, support affected students and enable them to continue with their education. I am most grateful to our colleagues in local Public Health England for their invaluable expertise, support and partnership in managing this very challenging situation.

Thankfully, the number of cases among our students has fallen dramatically and we have seen no evidence of student-to-staff transmission, mirroring the pattern in other universities. I fully appreciate, however, that in-person teaching has been very challenging, given the need for social distancing and face coverings. The added difficulty of providing in-person teaching to some students, while simultaneously providing online education to their self-isolating classmates, is something that we had not fully anticipated.

Mobilising our research capability

Our COVID-19 research response has been as impressive as our transition to digital education. Bristol’s globally recognised expertise in virology, synthetic biology, aerosol science, vaccines, population health and clinical trials meant we were well placed to contribute to the global effort to understand and combat SARS-Cov-2.

Bristol was also one of the biggest recruiters to the successful Oxford vaccine trial and played a key role in trials demonstrating the efficacy of corticosteroids in severely ill hospitalised patients.

This inspiring research response to COVID-19 extended well beyond the STEMM disciplines – our social science colleagues’ important work identifying a surge in domestic violence during the pandemic being one of many examples of ground-breaking work that is already changing international policy and practice.

I am very grateful for the generous financial support of friends and alumni which funded much of this research.

Finally, a word on our civic response to COVID-19. I’ve spoken previously about the efforts of staff and students who have joined the NHS, manufactured PPE and produced hand sanitiser for distribution by the Local Resilience Forum. But we know the current public health situation continues to create a wide range of pressures for many of our partners and for communities across the city-region. In response, efforts like those headed by our Faculty of Social Sciences and Law have seen colleagues collaborate with local voluntary and community organisations. These partnerships are helping organisations understand the emerging needs of the community and build an evidence base to inform post-COVID recovery efforts.

And last, but certainly not least, Bristol’s students have also made a great contribution to our city, supporting those most in need and exemplifying the best civic traditions of our University. Most notably the Students’ Union has worked very effectively with Bristol City Council to target student volunteering efforts to best effect. This has seen students supporting foodbanks, helping vulnerable members of the community, fundraising, and providing free consultancy for charities responding to the pandemic.

Looking ahead to 2021

I sense a collective relief that the holiday season is approaching, and we are working closely with government, Public Health England and local city partners towards a staggered and safe return home of most students in time for the festive season.

Of course, we always have a significant number of international and, indeed, UK students staying on campus over the holidays and we anticipate having even more this year due to international travel restrictions and other COVID-related issues. I am extremely grateful to the many staff and Bristol SU colleagues who have been working so closely together to ensure that these students are supported during this period.

The past nine months have been like no other. We are hopeful that recent developments in testing technologies coupled with the learning from Teaching Block 1 (TB1) will improve the TB2 experience for both students and staff. Furthermore, the wonderful results from three vaccine trials in quick succession raise the very real prospect of a relatively normal 2021-22 academic year.

We might even dare to imagine what that new academic year could look like. I suspect we will want to retain much of our newly acquired capability in digital education to enrich our curriculum and, if cleverly woven in, to reduce staff workload. On the research front, there promises to be a surge in research opportunities for colleagues in the biomedical, life and population health sciences. In many other research areas, colleagues will have so much to contribute to economic and societal recovery (see below).

I am especially grateful to staff for being so understanding as to why we had to control spending so carefully during the pandemic. This prudent approach should position us well to invest in our research endeavour, as vaccines are rolled out and the virus is controlled.

I think we have all been worried that the enormous workload associated with the move to blended learning has inevitably reduced the time available for research, and it is critical that we rebalance our activities over the coming year if we are to continue to compete successfully with the world’s best research-intensive universities. I can assure colleagues that this will be a central theme in the refresh of our institutional strategy.

Supporting Bristol’s post-COVID recovery

As one of Bristol’s largest employers, the University contributes around £1 billion a year to the city-region economy and in 2018 supported more than 16,000 local jobs. Over the coming weeks and months, we will have a central role to play in supporting the city’s recovery post-COVID.

As a stakeholder in Bristol’s One City Plan, this means working closely with other regional organisations and local stakeholders to help support diverse, inclusive and more equitable communities.

It also means redoubling our efforts to promote innovation, jobs and enterprise and building on the track record of initiatives, like the National Composites Centre, SETsquared accelerator, Engine Shed and Unit DX. These hugely successful interventions have helped bring researchers, scientists, engineers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors together; harnessing the city’s diversity, stimulating more enterprise activity and supporting new business creation, incubation and scale-up.

Our region is already home to one of the UK’s fastest-growing and most globally significant tech clusters, has one of the highest business start-up and survival rates among major UK cities, and enjoys globally recognised strengths in sectors such as aerospace, zero carbon and the creative industries. It is also renowned for innovation in AI, 5G, semiconductors, quantum, cyber security, robotics, haptics and data science.

Through major developments, partnerships and strategic initiatives, including the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus, we are ready to play our full part in powering the city’s recovery, building on existing regional research and innovation strengths and driving future skills, job creation and growth opportunities.

Thank You

While we are not out of the woods yet (as demonstrated by the city’s designation to Tier 3), the COVID-19 vaccine trials are reason for considerable optimism. The winter months are likely to continue to be challenging, but we have now the very real prospect of a return to normality in time for the next academic year. I wish to thank our entire University of Bristol community and, indeed, our many partners, alumni, friends and supporters who have helped us navigate through an extraordinarily difficult situation since March, and whose continued support we will rely on over the period ahead. And, of course, I especially look forward to thanking each and every one of you in person in the not-too-distant future!

‘Stay safe, follow the rules and be respectful’- our message to Bristol’s student community

As we approach the new academic term, we remain committed to supporting our community and our city.  At this point in time, this includes being absolutely clear with our new and returning students that this will not be a normal academic year and there are very clear expectations relating to their behaviour.

Our message is simple – stay safe, follow the rules and be respectful.

Throughout the national lockdown, the overwhelming majority of students followed the government’s public health guidance. We expect they will continue to do so in the months ahead.

From the very start of the COVID pandemic, staff and students at UWE Bristol and the University of Bristol have worked tirelessly to help fight the virus and this work continues. From world-leading medical research into testing and vaccine development, to policy research around domestic violence and public health guidance – our universities have focused their collective expertise and state-of-the-art facilities to help Bristol address the challenges posed by coronavirus and, ultimately, save lives.

This collective institutional effort has seen hundreds of students and staff join the NHS as doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. University accommodation and free parking has been offered to front-line NHS staff. Vast amounts of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer has been manufactured and donated to front-line services. An army of student volunteers has supported foodbanks and provided much-needed support to the most vulnerable. UWE’s Frenchay Campus hosted Bristol’s NHS Nightingale Hospital and a Public Health England testing centre is now open to the public at the University of Bristol’s Victoria Rooms car park on Queens Road.

However, we recognise and understand the concerns our community will have about the return of students over the next few weeks.  To help with this, a huge amount of planning has gone into ensuring their return to Bristol is as Covid-secure as possible and that they can have a great experience in our city without putting themselves, or others, at risk.

Both universities have introduced a comprehensive range of measures to minimise the potential transmission of the virus. For example, to avoid mass gatherings, we are offering a blended approach to education which comprises both online and small group in-person teaching. Large-scale lectures will not take place and our physical estates have been reconfigured to allow for maximum social distancing.   New student arrivals will be staggered over several weeks. Staff and students will be given face coverings for use on campus and we have robust systems in place to identify cases of COVID-19 as early as possible, support affected individuals, and minimise any risk of further infection.

Elsewhere, this year’s Freshers’ events will be mostly held online, with both Students’ Unions having worked incredibly hard to create a mix of high-quality online and in-person events that comply with all government guidelines. Importantly, large gatherings and house parties are not permitted in university halls or private rented accommodation. While some individual students may be tempted to join such gatherings, we are clear this behaviour is unacceptable.

We take our responsibilities to our community very seriously and we have clear systems in place to respond to student misconduct on and off campus. Most recently, we have worked closely with Bristol City Council and Avon and Somerset Police to agree a joint approach to COVID-19 rule enforcement. Given the seriousness of the threat posed by the virus, both universities are committed to taking swift disciplinary action against any student found to be in breach of the rules. Such violations may also be a criminal offence and will be dealt with appropriately.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to represent an unprecedented challenge to public health. In response, both UWE Bristol and the University of Bristol are working closely with partners across the city to mitigate risk and keep our communities safe.

Bristol’s students are such an important part of the life, culture and economy of our great city. We hope permanent residents will find our joint approach to the new academic year reassuring and will continue to give a characteristically warm Bristol welcome to our students over the coming weeks.

We know that many of our students feel understandably very upset about the present situation. They are deeply concerned about their own personal health and they are worried about negative portrayals of young people in the media and the suggestion they alone are responsible for the rise in nationwide COVID infections.

We are confident that the vast majority of students will continue to do the right thing, to follow the rules, and to act as considerate and conscientious neighbours within their communities, but if you see or experience unacceptable student behaviour in your community, please report it via UWE’s Community Liaison Team: community@uwe.ac.uk; or the University of Bristol’s Community Team: community-living@bristol.ac.uk

Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Bristol

Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor and President, UWE Bristol

A message regarding our response to COVID-19

In these unprecedented times, our thoughts are with all communities around the world.

Here at Bristol, the health and wellbeing of our students and colleagues is our top priority. 

For some weeks, we have been working intensively with colleagues across the University, and with Public Health England (PHE), the NHS and other partners to plan for all scenarios. This work will help prevent the spread of the virus, support affected staff and students and limit the impact of the outbreak on our academic activities and operations.  

It is for this reason that today, Wednesday 18 March, will be the last day of face to face lectures, tutorials and seminars and the end of teaching for this current term (brought forward from Friday 27 March).  

Importantly, the University is currently not closing, although many of our operations will be substantially reduced. We continue to house and care for students, we continue to research and plan for next term’s teaching, and support our students and staff.  

We expect and hope that term will start again on Monday 20 April 2020, although there is no doubt that the term will feel markedly different. We are transitioning to online teaching and assessment – an enormous challenge and opportunity for many colleagues, but one that I know we will embrace.  

For now, our main library will be repurposed as a study centre with appropriate safety protocols in place to create a safer study space. Some research facilities will remain open. I also want to assure our staff and students that our wellbeing support for staff and students will remain available throughout the extended Easter vacation.  

We are also dedicated to supporting our international staff and students to help resolve any additional concerns they have, and who may feel particularly isolated at this time. 

At the University of Bristol, we are proud to have friends, colleagues, collaborators and alumni all over the world. During these challenging times, it is important that we all pull together. As so many of us work remotely or find ourselves in isolation, let’s make the effort to reach out to each other, to offer support where we can and stay connected.  

This is indeed a very worrying time for us all, but I am confident we can harness our collective ingenuity, resolve and passion to navigate the choppy waters ahead. 

Students and staff can continue to keep updated on the latest developments through our Coronavirus (COVID-19) webpage 

Navigating industrial action together

Industrial action represents a challenging situation for all parties concerned. It is not entered lightly on either side of the debate, and staff and student communities and leadership teams up and down the country, including here at Bristol, will be navigating the impacts of the current strike over the coming days.

I have said several times over the previous weeks that I respect the right of my colleagues to act where they feel they have no other option to protect their current and future interests. This is an important right and one I stand by; our sector is experiencing a range of significant pressures and changes, and many of these are felt strongly and directly by our workforce, who are vital to our success as individual institutions and to the quality of higher education we provide nationally.

I am proud of the continuing hard-work and commitment of my colleagues as we develop our teaching, research and civic influence together at Bristol. As we are together in the successes, so we are in the challenging period we currently find ourselves in.

I have spent parts of this week speaking to colleagues on the UCU picket line. Many of these colleagues I know from their excellent work in our teaching, research and student support activities and the professional services which underpin them. I value the honest conversations we have had and will continue to consider the opinions and challenges being expressed. I will feed these back to my team and to the negotiating table and look for ways to support the ongoing discussions.

One of my priorities is of course protecting the education of our students. I’m very aware of the uncertainty these situations can create, both for our young people and for their parents. We have introduced a range of measures, re-directed resources and bolstered key services to support our students during this period, both in terms of their academic studies and for their wellbeing.

I’m also aware that with the absence of some colleagues, our remaining staff are carrying on with their work as usual, working hard to keep the activities in our faculties, schools and professional and support services on track. We are all grateful for your support.

We will continue to navigate the uncertainty together in the coming weeks as best we can, continuing constructive dialogue with UCU and working hard to minimise the impact of the strikes on our community.

Mental health and wellbeing is at the forefront of our minds

Last week was University Mental Health Day (UMHD19) – a national day of events where students around the UK unite to change the narrative around student mental health.

It is a day where organisers aim to bring together the university community to make mental health a university-wide priority.

Here at Bristol the mental health and wellbeing of our students and our staff has been at the forefront of our minds and planning for some time.

You will remember that last autumn we launched a consultation with our staff and students about our new mental health and wellbeing strategies.

I said at the time that we can only get ahead of this issue if we all work together so I was delighted with the level of feedback we collected from across our community.

We received lots of honest and insightful comments as well as many supportive and innovative ideas.

That feedback was further informed by our Independent Expert Advisory Group of national and international research experts, policy makers and practitioners ensuring our approach was informed by best practice in higher education, health and social care.

Importantly, for the student focused strategy, it was developed in real partnership with our students, whose insights have brought to life the challenges faced by young people today.

This approached is echoed on the University Mental Health Day 2019 website when it says: ‘Students and members of the university community, as experts by experience, best understand the challenges that university presents and are best placed to influence change’.

Our work at Bristol has led to the publication of our new Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy and to a Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy.

The steps we are taking are part of a journey that will evolve over time. New activities and initiatives will emerge as we learn from our work here at Bristol, and as all parts of our society understand more about these complex challenges.

By continuing to work together with staff and students I believe we can build an environment where everyone can thrive, and where wellbeing is central to all we do.

Please take some time to look at the strategies to see what is already underway and what is still to be delivered and let us know if you feel something is missing or highlight an area you feel we need to focus on.

Having our voice heard in the Brexit debate

January is always a time for thinking ahead and making plans, and 2019 is no exception. We are entering a year of major political uncertainty, and we will need to plan even more carefully than usual so that we are prepared for any of the possible outcomes.

Following the defeat of the Government’s proposed Brexit deal, I want to assure you that our priority continues to be supporting our EU staff, their families, and EU students as much as we can.

Prior to Christmas I signed a letter to MPs along with other university leaders, warning of the likely damage to universities if the UK leaves the EU on 29 March with no deal agreed.

During the first week of the year the new Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore MP, visited us. Mr Skidmore knows Bristol well – he is a historian who has spent some time teaching here and lives in the region. As well as demonstrating the impact of our world-leading research and education, we also took the opportunity to raise our concerns directly with him about Brexit.

As the political debate continues to rage on over the coming days and weeks we will ensure our voice is heard to strive for the best possible outcome for higher education in the UK.
Whilst the UK’s relationship with the EU is clouded in uncertainty I want to make one thing very clear to our EU staff and students: you are an important part of our community and we want you to stay with us at the University of Bristol.

One piece of good news in the last 24 hours is the Government’s announcement it has scrapped charging EU citizens to apply for its EU Settlement Scheme. The University had previously said we would cover this cost for all staff and students employed here.

In terms of running our day-to-day business I would also like to reassure you that we have been planning for the various Brexit scenarios and that we continue to take steps to ensure we retain strong links with European universities for research and teaching. Our education and research reflect the expertise and knowledge of our European colleagues. We embrace our collaborations with our European partners; that will not change.

I appreciate these are small gestures and may do little to compensate for the stress and uncertainty our European staff and students are feeling during these uncertain times. The UK may not feel like a welcoming place for many EU colleagues and students now, but we will do all we can at the University to provide the collegial, supportive environment you deserve. As we navigate the coming weeks and months together, we must ensure that future generations of staff and students recognise the value of our truly international university and the outstanding contributions of our EU staff.

A new ‘heart’ to our Clifton campus

When we launched our new University Vision and Strategy two years ago, the front cover of the publication featured an artist’s impression of a pedestrianised Tyndall Avenue. The image captured a groundswell of student and staff feedback during the consultation process urging us to create a much more identifiable, coherent and welcoming heart to our Clifton campus.

This term has seen the first elements take shape of what is now called the Campus Heart programme.

Students returned in September to a newly refurbished Indoor Sports Centre with increased capacity, better changing facilities, a bigger gym with state-of-the-art equipment, and a much-improved facade.

The new SU Living Room

Next door, Senate House is also going through a transformation. In addition to new high-quality teaching spaces, we’ve created a dedicated PGR Hub for postgraduate researchers. Last week the Students’ Union opened a new SU Living Room to provide central space for students to relax and connect with each another. Over the coming years, a large catering and social area will be created through remodeling of the two lower floors, while the upper floors will see the development of new reading rooms, a Global Lounge to support the University’s internationalization strategy, and a more central home for the Students’ Union team.

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Mental health is everybody’s business at our University

Two people walking in a park

This week we’re launching a feedback process for our new staff and student mental health and wellbeing strategies.

These important documents:

  • bring together the mental health supports already available to our staff and students;
  • capture the major changes and new investments we have made over the past two years to further strengthen these supports;
  • challenge us all to consider if there are additional actions we should take;
  • and ask if we can use more of our world-leading research capability to better understand contemporary mental health challenges.

The feedback period will run until 7 November, and I hope as many of our students and staff as possible will get involved and provide feedback to us. We can only get ahead of the issue if we all work together. Simply put, mental health is everybody’s business at our University.

Today, Wednesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day and much of the focus this year is on young people and mental health in a changing world. As the new academic year commences, the wellbeing of our students remains firmly at the forefront of all our minds.

I’ve really enjoyed meeting so many new students during our traditional Welcome Week activities as they embarked on their exciting journey with us here at the University of Bristol.

Many will take to university like ducks to water, while others will take a bit longer to settle in. Some will experience difficulties during their time with us such as family, relationship, financial or academic challenges, or physical or mental health issues. The one thing they can all be sure about is that they are not alone in facing such difficulties nor the first to do so.

Mental health is fast emerging as the single biggest public health issue affecting young people today, both in the UK and globally. The exact causes are difficult to determine, but there can be many contributing factors on a personal and societal level.

It’s refreshing that there’s an increased awareness of mental health among current students and a willingness to talk openly about mental health challenges – so different to my life as a student in the late 70s and early 80s.

In some situations, the natural mood swings that have always characterised the human condition (good days and bad days) and the anxiety that is a normal precursor of major events such as presentations or exams (and arguably a positive factor in terms of performance) are misinterpreted by students or misrepresented by observers as abnormal.

However, even allowing for these factors, there does appear to have been a very real surge in mental health challenges facing young people, including students.

The causes are unclear and will take time and research to tease out. Putative factors include increased academic pressure, concerns about employment, changing patterns of drug and alcohol use, student debt, and concerns about geopolitics and climate change.

Many of us worry that the sheer volume, content and pressures of social media may also be a factor. In this cyber world, there’s no longer time to daydream, to muse or to have a bad hair day without getting judged, trolled or abused.

The scale of the challenge is causing us to re-evaluate every aspect of our student support systems; to challenge established practices; to examine innovations elsewhere in the sector and beyond; to make major changes and significant additional investments where warranted; and to monitor the impact of our interventions with a view to continual improvement.

We at Bristol are taking every step we can to work with our students to help them build the life skills and resilience to cope with these pressures, and to identify vulnerable students as early as possible so that we can support them.

We are implementing an institution-wide approach to student (and indeed staff) wellbeing for this academic year and beyond. Part of this work is focused on further strengthening support for our students during their transition into University.

This includes an ‘opt-in’ policy which encourages our students to allow us to include a third party, chosen by the student themselves, in discussions on their mental or physical health where we have significant concerns.

This consent is granted via online registration, or in discussion with University staff. The named contact can be changed at any time and consent can be withdrawn or added during a student’s time at Bristol.

Universities have always been empowered by law to contact parents, guardians and others in life-threatening situations. Our new policy aims to agree upfront with students that we can involve a third party of their choosing at an earlier stage if we have significant worries about their physical health or wellbeing.

We are definitively not in loco parentis and our students are adult learners with all the rights of privacy enjoyed by other adults. We believe, however, that where someone is experiencing difficulties they may benefit hugely from the early involvement of a parent, former teacher, friend or guardian – involvement that vitally requires the student’s unequivocal consent.

In legal terms, a young person wakes up on the day of their 18th birthday with a dramatically different set of rights and entitlements. From a human, biologic and behavioural viewpoint, they are essentially the same person!

Difficult that it may be, common sense and judgement must prevail if we are to support our young people as they navigate the tricky journey from adolescence to adulthood – a vulnerable period for even well-adjusted confident individuals and an unnerving and stressful period for many more.

We’re delighted that in the first week of registrations 94% of our students, both those new to Bristol and those returning, have signed up to this new common-sense policy. It seems a simple step but one that could make a real difference in the coming year.

Other key measures to our whole-institution approach include:

  • embedding personal development, wellbeing and resilience in the curriculum through our new Bristol Futures initiative;
  • introducing a team of full-time professional services staff in our halls of residence (Residential Life Teams) who are rostered on a 24/7/365 basis and whose full-time job is to work with our established teams of live-in student peer mentors on community building and early identification and support of vulnerable students;
  • introducing a similar team of dedicated full-time professional services staff into our academic schools and departments (Student Wellbeing Advisers) working alongside our personal and senior tutors;
  • bolstering our triage, GP and Counselling Services so we can treat urgent cases on the same day if necessary while channelling less urgent cases to appropriate counselling, life-style, mindfulness and exercise programmes;
  • strengthening partnerships with external providers such as the NHS, Public Health England and the charitable sector so students in difficulty can be referred and treated promptly;
  • creating a strong focus on employability with a view to supporting our students during their second challenging transition – moving from student life to the workforce after graduation;
  • reviewing our policies and communications in difficult areas such as withdrawal and fitness-to-study ensuring students are appropriately supported by the University, their parents and others during such challenging events.

As a world-leading research-intensive university we are taking an evidence-based approach to inform our practices and to monitor outcomes. We are also investing in research to better understand risk, causation and effective treatment. I am grateful to our Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for coordinating these efforts which will soon include the appointment of a new Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow to boost research capacity in this area.

This programme clearly involves multiple components – many of which overlap – and must be underpinned by easily understood care pathways and communications channels. I have established a Vice-Chancellor’s Taskforce to coordinate our efforts across the University which, in turn, is supported by an Expert Advisory Panel of national and international experts.

But finally, it would be remiss of me as a parent, clinician and Vice-Chancellor, if I did not state that universities, while taking their pastoral care responsibilities very seriously, should not be expected to replace the NHS in provision of mental health support. For too long, mental health has been the poor relation to other NHS services – this must change.

Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Bristol