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.

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