A sector and city of change: reflections after six months

It is six months since I became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol.  My thanks to everyone who has helped me get to know the University and the City in all their brilliance and boldness. I have seen such great things happening but have also had numerous conversations about individual and collective challenges. I appreciate the open way in which colleagues, students and other members of our broader Bristol community have shared their insights, ideas and opinions.

I wanted to take time to write down my reflections and share some of what I see as the future for our University in light of those discussions. I do so in the knowledge that not all is well in Higher Education across the UK, or indeed globally, as I write this in South Africa during my first trip abroad on behalf of Bristol. However, while some of what I say below is quite sobering, I am optimistic about the future. Everywhere I’ve been (whether it has been a Bristol, Pretoria or Cape Town classroom), I have met such extraordinary people who are determined to do, and be, their very best.

As part of my trip, I have been visiting our strategic partner, the University of Cape Town, who, like us, have ambitious plans that take them to 2030. Like us, they also have concerns about student fees, accommodation costs and the need for greater inclusion, social and racial justice, and access to the benefits of Higher Education.

Signing of strategic agreement with acting VC, Professor Sue Harrison, University of Cape Town
Presentation by Professor Divine Fuh, UCT
Meeting Dr Dlamini-Zuma, South African Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities
With University of Pretoria VC, Tawana Kupe, and his team

While we also have considerable differences, there are some fundamental shared issues. Declining home fees no longer cover the actual costs of tuition; we are increasingly dependent on international fees or philanthropy to cover gaps in research funding and education. For public institutions that don’t have large endowments, there are few easy answers.

I don’t need to remind you that, at Bristol, while our income is constrained by caps on home tuition fees, our costs are not. Inflation has hit everybody personally. Our students are worried about how far their maintenance grant will stretch. Colleagues are understandably concerned about rising costs, pay and pensions. It has hit the University as an institution as well. Some of this isn’t new, and these growing financial pressures have led to staff strikes and student protests in Higher Education for almost five consecutive years. But post-COVID, things really do need to change. The goodwill that has kept our system working is fraying at every level.

But if this is the challenge,  there is some hope on the horizon in the United Kingdom. Our unions and Universities UK have agreed a joint statement on pensions which we endorse, and while negotiations on pay may have concluded, we support ongoing talks on broader working conditions.

I have been out listening to colleagues in numerous venues, from individual meetings at my monthly VC surgeries to picket line conversations. I have heard sensible suggestions about practical steps that we can take to be more effective and efficient, as well as exciting ideas for new opportunities. In turn, I have done my best to explain why we need to change our approach to University finances and decision-making, ensuring we simplify processes, reduce bureaucracy and build more trust into our systems. I know there is more to do to explain how we make investment decisions, particularly in terms of capital expenditure.

This does mean change, something that I know can elicit groans of “not again!”

Let me explain what is being proposed and why. Our current University Executive Board is very large, with more than 25 members. We also have a Strategic Implementation Board, featuring essentially the same people, monitoring our progress against our strategy and agreeing investments that will help deliver our aims. A host of committees feed into these two groups, including the Academic Leadership Group, Operations Board, Portfolio Boards and other groups which oversee implementation of the various themes of our strategy. Faculties and Directorates have their own layers of meetings, which should join up with these senior-level university groups but often don’t. Then there is Senate, a key academic body, which has its own essential groups that meet and report regularly.

Universities are complex places, but as the description above suggests, we can build in more  complexity than is really needed. These committees and meetings consume people’s attention, focus and time.

My ambition is for Bristol to be more open, trustworthy and trusting, restoring energy by placing authority where it is needed most. With greater autonomy comes greater local accountability. Within agreed guidelines, and referring to specific expertise when needed, we should trust one another to do our very best.

To make this possible, Judith Squires has been leading a review of our academic leadership structures, drawing upon ideas from a working group drawn from Senate members. I’ve been clear with that group from the beginning that I do need a smaller number of Deans on our University Executive and that, above all,  Schools need greater visibility and autonomy. The working group, in turn, has come up with a range of ways in which this could be made possible, while retaining elements of the current structures they believe are valuable.

In the Spring, therefore, we will be appointing three Executive Deans for Health & Life Sciences, Arts, Social Sciences & Law and Science & Engineering, initially for a period of up to two years. Executive Deans will work with colleagues to define, within agreed overarching university guidelines, local frameworks that work for their Schools, staff and students. These appointments will be made from the current cohort of Deans or equivalents to ensure some continuity as we work through the detail of the changes over the next eighteen to twenty-four months.

What does this mean for Professional Services (PS) colleagues?  Simplified Faculties, and Schools with more responsibility and accountability will need appropriate levels of PS support (balanced across local and central teams) with appropriately streamlined processes and systems. Work to create efficient and effective PS teams is now underway at Bristol and engagement on this will continue. Lucinda Parr is leading this work. Over the next six months she will be leading a process to define the structures required to give Executive Deans and Heads of School the help they need. Lucinda will be supported in this by a new Executive Director of Faculty Operations, who will be appointed over the summer to help us evolve the Faculty PS model in support of our strategy. More information about the changes can be found here and here.

I realise there will be some anxiety around implementing changes. This is why we are moving swiftly to make the direction of travel clear while also taking time to implement the detail, which will include confirming how students are represented in our decision-making.

While University structures matter, they are the mechanism for delivering our ambitions, not an ambition in their own right. We have a lot to do and a lot to deliver by 2030. We have a bold strategy and a new campus to open in 2026. We face serious issues around climate change and meeting our Net Zero commitments, with or without offsetting. We are part of a city that is changing all around us. We need to contribute to its overall prosperity, not just our own.  As just one of many examples of how we make this work, our city is home to the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, where last month I signed an agreement with UWE Vice-Chancellor Steve West, formalizing our ten-year partnership commitment in what is the largest academic centre for robotics research in the UK.

On practical matters, let me finish by outlining some major financial decisions that we have recently made or are in the process of deciding. There are often concerns that we invest more in buildings than in people, but that isn’t the case: at Bristol more than 50% of our income goes on salaries. Nonetheless, our people need the right infrastructure within which to work. The Board of Trustees has approved recommendations to modernize our computing network. They have also approved a major upgrade to our teaching and learning facilities in the Veterinary School, as well as the extension on our lease of Maggs House, enabling more innovative student-focused space to be developed on the Clifton Campus. At the end of March, the Board will also make the final decision on the construction of the main CM1 building at Temple Quarter, a key moment in planning that has been ongoing since the idea of a new campus was first discussed almost a decade ago.

This is exciting. This is ambitious. This is bold. This is why I came to Bristol.

I realise that some of what I have written may raise more questions for you. We can pick these up either in our next town-hall live-stream meeting or you can always email me at vice-chancellor@bristol.ac.uk.

Thank you again for the welcome shown to me over these first six months and the work that each and every one of you does to make us such a special place. I look forward to meeting with many more of you in the weeks and months ahead.

End of term and looking ahead to 2023

The past four months have flown by so quickly and it is hard to believe that we are almost at the end of term.

It has been a real pleasure to get to know the University of Bristol community, our city and our many friends and partners. I have been so impressed by the high calibre of our academic and professional services work. I have seen the depth of the shared commitment of staff, students and our city to solving long-term issues such as public health, environmental sustainability and social justice. I have participated in open conversations on difficult and complex issues ranging from contemporary racial inequalities to cost-of-living pressures.

I am committed to building on these foundations and it was great to launch the University’s new strategy, one that will take us to 2030.  I was not here when the strategy was developed but it is a privilege to lead the delivery of its purpose-led, bold and uniquely Bristolian drive for excellence and inclusion over the next seven years.

The next phase is to move forward to meet our promises and put our strategy into practice. I have every confidence that we can do this, and more. Over the past months, I have visited schools, faculties and directorates and held two live-streamed conversations with staff. I have worked closely with our University of Bristol Students’ Union to hear their views on what we do well, and where we need to improve. I have met regularly with the Mayor of Bristol and the Metro Mayor of the West of England Combined Authority and caught up with what we do collaboratively through our SetSquared, GW4 and the Western Gateway Initiatives. Our University senior team have met with UWE and the University of Bath’s executives to explore areas where we can deepen our local partnerships. I have been out to see the National Composites Centre and Science Create where some of our most entrepreneurial work takes place and taken Research council, Research England and parliamentary visitors around the new Bristol Digital Futures Institute and our exciting emerging Temple Quarter site.

I have also been struck by the special place that the University of Bristol has in the life of the nation as well as globally. It was a privilege to represent the University at Her Royal Highness, the late Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and to host the Mayor’s Annual State of the City Address and the High Sheriff’s conference on how to make the legal system more diverse. I have met numerous alumni in the UK and from across the world who want to help make the University as effective as possible. If we can deliver on our 2030 ambitions, we will be an exemplar of what it truly means to be a global-civic university.

Throughout these conversations, I have also been aware of the challenges that we face, both in dealing with our past and in formulating our future. We have an increasingly diverse student body but this isn’t reflected in our the make-up of our staff. We are seeing much higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression in both our student and staff bodies than ever before. Expectations about what we should provide are rising at the same time as our financial resources are being stretched to their limits. But I believe that Bristol will rise to these challenges today just as we have done in the past. I am very excited about what 2023 will bring and look forward to seeing you all again in the New Year.

I’ve recorded a short film for my University colleagues reflecting on my experiences this term and looking ahead to 2023 which you may like to watch.

Have a wonderful, restful break and a Happy New Year.

Participation and partnership

I have now been at Bristol for just over two months. I remain constantly impressed with what I see every day but also very aware of many of the challenges we face collectively and individually going into the winter.

I’ve really enjoyed meeting so many of you, including hearing about our University Research Institutes and research groups, attending Faculty Assemblies, speaking to students, and attending a Global Lounge Diwali celebration hosted by the India Society (below). The staff long-service event was another real highlight, celebrating the contributions and service of over 25 and 40 years of more than 50 colleagues.

I know how committed Bristol staff are to our students and our community, and that the decision to take strike action is always a difficult one. UCU has announced three days of strike at the end of November. This is a national pay dispute and we will do our part to try to achieve an affordable outcome that works for our future and that of our sector.

Universities need friends more than ever, and I’ve also spent some of this time telling our Bristol story to partners and supporters. These include politicians such as Thangam Debbonnaire MP, in whose constituency we sit, and the Shadow Universities Minister, Matt Western MP. Matt is a Bristol graduate and enjoyed seeing our Temple Quarter site, visiting the Bristol Digital Futures Institute, and meeting our student officers. I introduced the Mayor’s Annual State of the City Address in Wills Hall, and I or one of our senior team now join his fortnightly City Partners call to co-ordinate our approach to Bristol’s urban challenges. One of the results has been our contribution to the city’s ‘welcoming spaces’ initiative where we are supporting young people in the Barton Hill area through after-school clubs on our micro-campus at the Wellspring Settlement led by IntoUniversity.

Partnership is key to our 2030 vision. I very much enjoyed meeting with the CEO of the SS Great Britain to look at how we can build on our long-standing collaboration and was very excited to meet ‘Brunel’ (right) when I spent an evening on the ship as part of our public engagement event, FUTURES 2022 – the largest showcase of research and innovation in the region. I sat down with the CEOs of the Bristol and Weston NHS Trust and the North Bristol Trust to discuss how much more we could do together to tackle health inequalities in the city. I’ve been out to the National Composites Centre and spoken about the entrepreneurship we see at Bristol and the contributions we make to our broader area at the Western Gateway Development Conference.

We will shortly be publicly launching our Strategy – your Strategy – to 2030. I’ll be back next month to ask for your views on how you want to contribute to achieving our ambitions. Meanwhile, I’ve done a short video from the robing room in the Wills Memorial Building as I get ready for my first week of graduations.

Reflections on my first month

I have been in post now for four weeks. While short, it has been a memorable period with events ranging from attending the funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on your behalf or watching carefully as the new government has put its priorities in place to see what this means for Higher Education.

Alongside these national events, we’ve welcomed our students back to campus and enjoyed the Welcome Fair and all the amazing activities that the Students’ Union have put in place. I finished my first round of local and student media interviews, including with BBC Points West, Radio Bristol, Heart FM, Bristol 24/7, Epigram, UBTV and the Tab; and for colleagues who missed it, you can view my Town Hall introduction and Q&A session on the staff intranet.

Elsewhere, we’ve also had good news from Research England’s Knowledge Exchange Framework exercise which shows that Bristol is second only to Oxford in the amount of investment that our spin-out companies attract, testimony to the brilliance and impact that our research is achieving.

On a more sobering note, I’ve been speaking to UNISON colleagues on their picket lines last week. I’ve heard understandable worries about pay, cost-of-living concerns and workload pressures. While the issues around pay can only be negotiated at a national level, my colleagues will be working with all our trade unions to see what local measures we can take to help staff get through the winter and beyond.

Finally, I’ve had just over 170 messages to the VC-Feedback inbox and I’ve done my best to reply to each of you individually. I remain so impressed with the deep affection that you all have for the University of Bristol, one that I now understand and share myself. That gives me great confidence that we will be able to navigate any shifting funding or political challenges together. The dedicated mailbox is now closed but you can always contact me on vice-chancellor@bristol.ac.uk

In this short video, filmed in the study spaces of Senate House, I’ve tried to capture what this month has felt like.