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.
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!