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.


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


Temple Quarter: A chance to secure Bristol’s international future

There has been lots of comment, both in favour and against, the decision taken by Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees to explore plans for a mixed development on Temple Island and to consider developing the new arena at Filton.

As a relative newcomer to Bristol, I know that the issue of an arena for our wonderful city has been talked about for many years before my arrival with passionate and informed voices on both sides of the argument.

As the options became clear the University of Bristol’s response to the Mayor included three central messages:

  • the new University campus can work with either option for Temple Island – the arena option or the mixed-use option incorporating a conference facility;
  • the decision must be firmly based on evidence rather than opinion or politics given the amount of taxpayers’ money involved;
  • the worst outcome for the University would be inaction when it comes to developing Temple Island and the wider Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone.

Now that a decision has been made I support the Mayor’s call to look forward and to work together to ensure Bristol is a thriving, well-connected city.

The challenge for Bristol now is to put aside differences, respect the Mayor’s decision and work together to ensure that both the Temple Island development and a possible arena at Filton are delivered as soon as possible.

Artists’ impression of the Cattle Market Road site, looking towards Bristol Temple Meads

When I arrived in the city I was honoured to take over the leadership of one of Europe’s great civic universities based in one of the UK’s most attractive and liveable cities. I was somewhat surprised, however, to learn how the city had struggled for years to deliver key infrastructure in areas such as transport, housing and education by comparison with UK and international competitors.

The consistent message I heard from frustrated Bristolians was that the city had an unfortunate track record of arguing itself into inertia when it came to major infrastructure decisions. If this is indeed fair criticism – I do not have the experience in the city to make this judgement – then perhaps now is the time to change this dynamic, to live respectfully with differences of opinion, and to work together to secure the key infrastructure and investments that will underpin the employment, prosperity and quality of life for future generations.

And perhaps never has there been more need for collective ambition and resolve than at this particular time for our city. Regardless of political views, most agree that Brexit – no matter what the final deal or outcome – will pose significant challenges for the economy of our region in the short-medium term.

Prior to coming to Bristol, I lived most my professional life in three highly competitive and successful cities – Dublin, Boston and Toronto. Each has undergone impressive growth over the past decades and weathered major economic downturns through their ability to mobilise their collective public and private resources and present a compelling investment proposition on the world stage.

Many European cities are actively courting some of our region’s most successful industries. Even within the UK, the Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands Engine and other regions are managing to put aside local differences to present ambitious, compelling and joined-up cases for investment to central government and multinational industry. Bristol simply cannot afford to spurn the opportunity for investment and development in the context of this ever more intensive competition.

As a university we are committed to delivering our new Enterprise Campus adjacent to Temple Meads station that will be a world-class centre for education, research, partnership and innovation and a success story for our city, its businesses and communities.

We have secured the necessary funding and outline planning permission and we are now in detailed planning with a target of 2021/22. The jobs and expenditure associated with our new campus are estimated to generate at least £400m for the West of England economy over 25 years, over and above the substantial economic contribution the University already makes each year.

The new campus should play a major role in securing the talent pipeline, ideas and technologies to fuel Bristol’s future economy as well as serving as an important asset for the local community and a catalyst for the holistic development of the wider enterprise zone.

Success in a decade would see a vibrant new area in the environs of Brunel’s iconic Temple Meads Station that includes our new University campus, a new conference centre, much needed new housing, retail and commercial facilities – all sitting amid a unique network of picturesque waterways and an engaging and inspiring public realm. Alongside this could sit a new world-class arena in the re-invigorated Brabazon Hangars – the centrepiece of a bustling new quarter at Filton.

Brunel and Brabazon were, in many ways, emblematic of Bristol’s ambition and achievements on the world-stage in decades past. How fitting it would be if, together, they now become synonymous with Bristol’s contemporary ambition to develop the state-of-the-art infrastructure that secures Bristol’s future international reputation and competitiveness over the decades to come.

The ball is in our court. I suggest that history will not look back on us kindly if we fail to deliver.

Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor & President