Creating a gender equal and inclusive university and city region

International Women’s Day, 8 March 2024, provides us with an opportunity to shine a light on inspirational women in our community and reflect on our progress as an organisation towards gender equality. In a follow-up blogpost, our Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, Professor Judith Squires shares how our role as a global civic university contributes to creating a safer, more inclusive city by supporting women’s empowerment.

As a global civic university, our aspirations can ‘be best shaped and delivered collectively by a diverse and empowered university community’ (University Vision and Strategy 2030).  A key component of that approach is improving our processes and structures to provide a level field for every member of our community.


International Women’s Day 2024: Investing in women to accelerate progress

To mark International Women’s Day 2024, our Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, Professor Judith Squires, reflects on progress made towards gender equality at Bristol, our efforts to make a positive impact on the lives and careers of women both locally and nationally, and the importance of year-round commitment to these issues. 


International Women’s Day (IWD) is an occasion to recognise the incredible work of women around the world – and for leaders of organisations everywhere to consider the investments we are making in gender equality and career progression for our female colleagues.  

I want to take this opportunity to reflect on our progress here at Bristol in relation to this year’s United Nations theme, “Invest in women: Accelerate progress”, and the IWD campaign, “Inspire Inclusion”. 

As a global civic university, we believe that our aspirations can – to quote our 2030 Strategy – “be best shaped and delivered collectively by a diverse and empowered university community”.  A key component of that approach is improving our processes and structures to provide a level field for every member of our community.

Over the years, the University has made good progress with the gender pay gap, and initiatives have been put in place to encourage female leaders and remove gender inequality in the higher education sector. We have been working collectively with the City of Bristol and civic partners to encourage enterprising women, tackle sexual violence and harassment and to create a more equitable, diverse and inclusive city.  

There is still work to be done, but I wanted to share some of the ways in which the University has been investing in women to forge a gender equal and inclusive future.  

Advance HE Athena Swan Charter 

The University of Bristol was one of the founding signatories of the Advance HE Athena Swan Charter, which serves to remove gender inequality and underrepresentation in the higher education sector. We are delighted that the University’s commitment to equality has been recognised in the 20 school-level awards and, in February 2023, we were also awarded a highly commended institutional Silver Swan Award.

Moving towards gender parity  

It’s encouraging to see the steady progress in our reduction of the gender pay gap at Bristol; our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Evelyn Welch, gives further detail on this in her IWD blog post today, but both the mean and median pay gaps have reduced each year since we began reporting in 2017. 

Although we are pleased to see this progress, we know we have more work to do. Achieving gender parity remains a top priority. We now have 34% female professors, exceeding our initial target of 33% and the sector average of 28.5%. We are now aiming for 50% of professors to be female by 2030, as part of our commitment to eliminate the gender pay gap within the same time frame. Some of the key actions we have identified include engaging each of our faculties in action at local levels to improve female professorial representation across their disciplines.   

We also aim to better understand and address the implications of part-time working for gender pay, promoting the potential for job sharing for colleagues in leadership roles and developing a targeted programme to better support parental leave returners (prioritising part-time returners) to work on challenges and enablers for their future career progression; and undertaking intersectionality pay gap reporting annually, since group identities such as race and gender cannot be fully understood in isolation from each other.   

Career development 

Another important area of investment to support women in the workplace is a breadth of development opportunities. It’s great to see the Female Leadership Initiative going from strength to strength: we had a record number of applications this year and we currently have 60 participants across two cohorts.  

I am really pleased that the Bristol Women’s Mentoring Network goes from strength to strength. We are in the process of matching the current applicants and have received 129 mentee applications and 96 mentor applications. This is a huge increase from last year’s cohort which saw 44 pairs being matched. The new mentees are keen to use their mentoring relationship to develop their career progression. 

We continue to support applicants to the Elevate programme, aimed at women from Academic staff (up to grade L) and Professional Services staff (grades E-K) from Black, Asian or Minority ethnic backgrounds who identify as female. The programme creates a unique opportunity to meet, share, support and learn together.  

Alongside this we have 10 academic staff and PGRs from across disciplines on the WHEN (Women’s Higher Education Network) 100 BWPN this year. This particular programme seeks to enable systemic change in institutions to effectively address the lack of Black women professors, targeting all areas of the academic research pipeline. 

Empowering Parents in HE, led by Dr Jenny Crane and Dr Erika Hanna, is looking at enhancing research culture by embedding learnings through a co-produced artwork which explores and celebrates parenting alongside working at the University. The project leads aim to work with schools and senior management across the University to action recommendations for supporting parents. 

And if you’re interested in hearing from a range of inspirational women across the University, Nadia Soliman is hosting a Leadership Ethos event on 30 April. This event draws on Nadia’s experiences, both within and outside academia, with a focus on how we can empower everyone to lead and exhibit leadership behaviours. The event will launch the Leadership Ethos Framework, which will be accessible to the sector via a web hub that includes tools and resources.  

All of this progress and investment is the result of sterling work by a range of teams and networks, including the Women’s Staff Network, to provide spaces, platforms, visibility, mentoring and advocacy. Bristol-based programmes such as the Female Leadership Initiative and the Bristol Women’s Mentoring Scheme have also energised our activities supporting female progression.  

Continuing the conversation 

We’re marking IWD 2024 throughout this month: next week, I’ll be introducing Progress and Equity in Maternity Care’, a discussion between Emeritus Professor Jean Golding and Dr Charlea Williams from Bristol Medical School; and I’ll be continuing the IWD conversation on this blog with another post, going into more detail about our local partnership to tackle sexual violence and harassment on campus, our support of global women’s empowerment through our global civic work, and other initiatives and collaborations.  

As Evelyn remarks in her IWD post: “Every day, not just one day of the year, belongs to women around the world”. I wholeheartedly concur, and I look forward to further progress on gender equality at Bristol, with the help, commitment and invaluable input of so many of our colleagues. 


Professor Phil Taylor to join the University of Bath as its next Vice-Chancellor and President

Professor Phil Taylor, the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, is stepping down at the end of July after four years at Bristol to take up a new position as Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of Bath. (more…)

Professor Sir Eric Thomas, former Vice-Chancellor and President, 1953-2023

Professor Sir Eric Thomas FMedSci, former Vice-Chancellor and President at the University of Bristol, sadly passed away on Friday 10 November 2023 aged 70, following a short battle with cancer. He was Bristol’s 12th Vice-Chancellor, and led the University for 14 years between 2001 and 2015 during a period of significant change in higher education.

Portrait of Professor Sir Eric Thomas, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol
Professor Sir Eric Thomas

During his time at Bristol, Sir Eric was President of Universities UK from 2011 to 2013, a founder member and President of the Worldwide Universities Network for four years, and received a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2013 for services to higher education. The Thomas Report of 2004, written by Sir Eric, also provided a road map for advancement and philanthropy to flourish in the UK.

Sir Eric was born in Hartlepool in 1953 and was a Geordie through-and-through. His grandfather was a miner, and his early years in the north-east shaped his views and values – and his love of football. He initially took arts A-levels, in defiance of his father, a GP, who wanted him to become a doctor. After realising his mistake, he then took science A-levels in a year.

He graduated in Medicine from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1976, and married his wife, Narell, the same year. He chose obstetrics and gynaecology as his specialism once he became a doctor, and was particularly interested in infertility and the biology of endometriosis, publishing over 150 papers.

He was a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle before being appointed Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Southampton in 1991. In the same year, he became a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Southampton University Hospitals Trust. At the age of 42, Sir Eric became Head of the School of Medicine at Southampton and was appointed Dean just three years later. From there, he came to Bristol as Vice-Chancellor in September 2001.

He joined this University with a vision of how he wanted it to be – academically excellent in teaching and research, attracting the best students and the best staff, and making an impact on the international stage. His focus on teaching, and the establishment of clear career pathways for academics who wished to focus their efforts on teaching, was revolutionary for Bristol and it led to a great experience for our students.

Research at Bristol was also more ambitious and outward facing, enterprising, multidisciplinary and delivering high impact.  This was reflected in the Research Excellence Framework (2014).

During his time at Bristol, some of the things he helped oversee included: massive investment in people, buildings and the student experience based on a successful financial strategy; a leap forward in terms of philanthropic funding including the Centenary Campaign that passed the £100 million fundraising target six months ahead of schedule (to which he personally contributed at a very generous level); an increase in student numbers to strengthen some of our smaller departments; and a new sense of partnership with the City of Bristol, recognising that the city is important to the success of the University and the University helps the city to succeed.

Sir Eric also helped put the University of Bristol on the international map. We are now consistently placed well within the top 100 global universities and have a diverse student and academic population.

Jack Boyer, Chair of the Board of Trustees,  said: “We are incredibly saddened to hear this news; Sir Eric was one of the architects in shaping the future of higher education. He was a great advocate of both the University and city, and helped champion educational philanthropy, internationalisation, the commercial exploitation of innovation, as well as raising educational standards through a partnership with Bristol schools”.

Evelyn Welch, Vice-Chancellor and President, who has been a friend of Eric’s for 15 years since she was Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at Queen Mary University of London, added: “Sir Eric had three outstanding qualities – vision, leadership and commitment, and knew exactly where he wanted to take the University, and during his 14-year career at the helm he had the leadership skills to take it there.

“He will be remembered fondly for all his achievements while at Bristol that helped not only those in the local community but also across the world. Our thoughts are with his wife Narell, his children Rachel and David and the wider family at this very sad time.”

Supporting research careers – written by Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

Portrait of Judith Squires
Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

As signatories of the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, we are committed to addressing the challenges around insecurity of employment and career progression of all researchers. A clear issue is the use of fixed-term contracts. Over the last ten-years, as shown in the graph below, Bristol has made significant progress in moving our researchers onto open-ended contracts, going from a peak of 62% of researchers on fixed-term contracts in 2014/15 to 17% in 2021/22.

This is excellent progress, but we recognise that this is only one measure and isn’t the whole solution. Open-ended contracts support our researchers by enabling them to secure mortgages or other financial support, but we are aware that the funding is still fixed so they alone do not improve job security.

The Academic Career Development Programme has focused in more detail on these issues with several projects to support our researchers. One is career development and promotion for Research Associates and Senior Research Associates on Academic Role Profile Levels a and b respectively. Recognising that opportunities for researchers at the early stages of an academic career have been inconsistent across the University, from August 2023 we will change how researchers are costed, recruited and developed (formal communications forthcoming). We agreed a set of principles, which includes designing research roles to support career development. It means extending the Academic Promotions Framework to all academic staff so all researchers will be in scope for promotion (subject to there being funding and a role at the higher level). Having one Academic Promotions Framework for all career stages also means that we are providing a clear framework of what is expected at each stage.

We are also aware that the transition to independence beyond levels a/b is difficult. It is where many researchers can get stuck, particularly those who encounter additional barriers due to their individual circumstances or sector-wide systemic barriers that have a negative impact on research careers. It is also worth noting that there are jobs outside academia that we can help people prepare for, e.g. by booking a one-to-one appointment through Bristol Clear.

Graph showing decline in use of short-term research contracts over time

To begin to address the transition to independence, we have piloted a Career Development Fund for 25 early career researchers this year. It has been put in place as a trial to see if a small amount of internal funding can have a positive impact; for example, in supporting researchers to have time to work up research ideas and apply for fellowships or grants, publish key work, and fill any development gaps to support their next career step. A showcase event to highlight the impact, both personal and career, will take place in September 2023 to celebrate achievements and review and decide next steps.

For our more established researchers who still face issues of job insecurity, we have been testing options with key stakeholders such as Finance and HR. We wanted to investigate interventions that will have real impact by conducting interviews with research fellows to test assumptions and fully understand the issues. We are currently piloting and reviewing a number of talent retention and talent development opportunities to enable us to better support researchers at this career stage. These include reviewing a transfer to core funding process in Health Sciences and an externally funded fellows process in Life Sciences.

To start to address the challenges around insecurity of employment, we also need to support researchers to recognise and develop skills that are valuable and transferable as they progress in their careers. These will make them competitive for core funded roles and enable them to be responsive to a changing funding landscape by increasing their options for continued employment. By providing researchers with the skills and development opportunities, we want to enable them to make sustainable employment choices. This is further complemented by activities that form part of our research culture programme, including work to ensure professional development time – another key part of the Concordat – is protected and properly resourced.

The work has also highlighted a lack of understanding around how university finances and research funding work in practice. For example, externally funded research doesn’t cover the full cost of the work (only around 80%) and so relies on other income from teaching, etc. Being part of a successful university is, therefore, a shared endeavour that requires a range of contributions. The Academic Promotions Framework captures this along with our aspirations as a university to help ensure that there is alignment between institutional and personal goals. As people progress their academic careers, their contribution changes and requires the development of other skills. This is why we have a core-funded research and teaching pathway alongside more focused research and teaching career paths. All are essential to our success and so getting the balance right is key, which will be the focus for follow-on work as we implement our 2030 strategy.

I hope that describing the work we are doing and planning to do helps to articulate the challenges we face and how we are working together to tackle them. Research is fundamental to our success and so it is essential that we create the right environment within which researchers can thrive.

Athena Swan Silver award for University of Bristol

It is a testament to the exceptional teamwork of colleagues across the University that we recently achieved a ‘highly commended’ institutional Athena Swan Silver award.

We can all be proud that Bristol was one of the founding signatories of the Athena Swan Charter. When it launched in 2005, the Charter looked to encourage and recognise the career progression and employment of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM) – sectors which typically show a strong imbalance towards men.

In the intervening years, we’ve seen great progress in our community, particularly in the School for Biochemistry which successfully achieved the fantastic and very rare accolade of gold award last year.

At the institutional level, in 2018 we committed to not only tackle gender inequality, but also to taking a gender and ethnicity intersectional approach to our work. We also committed to eliminating the Gender Pay Gap (GPG) in the Professoriate +/-3%, and to increase the number of female Professors to 30% by 2023.

We have since made excellent progress across the board, particularly in relation to issues of representation, culture, and career progression. It was the thorough and detailed intersectional analysis of our quantitative and qualitative student and staff data that was particularly commended in our application for not only highlighting our current key gender equality issues but also discussing the positive impact of initiatives put in place since our last Athena Swan application.

We have seen the successful implementation of a new academic promotions framework that more effectively rewards and recognises the full range of academic achievements, the Elevate programme, Bristol Women’s Mentoring Scheme and the Female Leadership Initiative.

These initiatives, coupled with other specific policy changes, such as our reimbursement of childcare and caring costs for conference and training attendance, have resulted in improved career opportunities for all areas of the pipeline.

Significantly, in 2020 our plans to eliminate the gender pay gap were set out in a landmark Collective Agreement between the University and Bristol UCU – the first agreement of its kind at a UK university. It included:

  • Increased opportunities and support for flexible working;
  • A new Promotions Framework that would not under-value work that tends to be disproportionality undertaken by women;
  • Improved academic career support and development.

These actions have contributed to the continued rise in female staff successfully applying for to Associate Professor and Professor during the period of successive Swan applications ( of successful cases were female in 13/14, 45% in 16/17, 52% in 21/22), resulting in 31% female professors in 21/22, exceeding the target of 28% that we had set ourselves for this point.

Signing the Collective Agreement with Suzy Cheeke, Vice-President of Bristol UCU

Elsewhere, I am really pleased we have made significant progress amongst the student community with regards to diversity of ethnicity, by increasing targeted scholarship opportunities for groups underrepresented within HE, narrowing of the awarding gap from 12.7% (2017) to 7.6% (2021).

While we have seen great progress in recent years, our most recent Self-Assessment process made clear that while we have met our aspirations to date, there is still much work to be done. We have now identified new EDI priorities and targets to 2030, including 50% female professors and eradicating the gender pay gap altogether. We are also collaborating with the Student Union, the 1752 Group, and the Office for Students to tackle gender-based violence. We will also continue to remain responsive to issues arising from our students and staff; for example, via our Voice and Influence group, which is foregrounded with an intersectional focus by providing a forum for Chairs of Staff Networks to discuss common issues of equality inclusion across multiple identities.

Our ambitions are high, and our institutional journey towards equality continues. We will get there, and our new University Strategy, coupled with our new gender action plan and Swan Implementation Group, will accelerate the rate of change over the coming years.

We are absolutely committed to reaching these targets to harness the passion of colleagues across the University to foster a supportive, inclusive and caring environment for our whole community.

Further information: Athena Swan Charter | Advance HE (

Our Annual Report and Financial Statements for 2021/22 and our outlook for 2023

We have published our Annual Report and Financial Statements for the year ended 31 July 2022. You can find the full report on our webpages.

Besides being able to welcome our students and staff back onto our campuses after the government’s lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and our outstanding performance in the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021), there was much to celebrate in 2021/22. The Annual Report highlights some of the many brilliant achievements by colleagues, students and alumni over the last year, from research accomplishments and teaching awards to exceptional work in our local communities and in the international arena. Do take a look – it makes for a rewarding read and serves as a reminder of the fantastic work being done by our academics, Professional Services staff, students and graduates, day in and day out.

It’s only right that we also acknowledge the many challenges that we continue to face, both individually and institutionally. With that in mind, I wanted to present an update on the picture that our Annual Report and Financial Statements provide.

Our financial position

Our audited financial statements for the year ended 31 July 2022 report a deficit before other gains and losses (revaluation of our property and changes to the funding level of the UBPAS pension scheme) of £135.8 million compared to a prior-year surplus of £66.1 million. The deficit in 2022 was impacted by a significant one-off pension cost of £191.1 million following the agreement of the 2020 USS valuation. This significant charge reflects our best estimate of the cost of paying the USS past service deficit contributions that the University is contracted to make over the next 16 years at today’s prices.

USS has reported a significant improvement in the funding position of the scheme during 2022. There may be a reversal of this charge following the next valuation of USS on 31 March 2023 if the improvement in market conditions for defined benefit pension schemes persists over the coming month. We remain contracted to pay very significant past service deficit contributions to USS until a new valuation is completed. Adjusting for this one-off event would turn the reported deficit into a surplus before other gains and losses of £55.3 million, which would be more comparable with the prior year surplus of £66.1 million.

Our surpluses are used to maintain and replace our existing physical and digital infrastructure, including our student residences. We typically spend around £25 million each year maintaining what we have. Remaining cash is allocated to significant investments to replace or expand our education and research facilities. We are currently investing £35 million of our surpluses in a new clinical training facility for our dental students at Temple Quay. This will open in 2023 and will provide a much better learning environment for our students, provide free primary dental care to the local community and help to increase the number of dentists. We are also making investments in our North Somerset Campus at Langford to support a growth in veterinary students. There is a national shortage of both following Brexit, and we want to play our part in supporting the future of our communities.

Our investments have not only been in people (460 new jobs) and our campus facilities. We are also investing in our digital infrastructure. Last year we invested over £10 million in the delivery of our Digital Strategy. The early phases are focussing on ensuring that we have a resilient infrastructure that will enable colleagues and students to access our digital services in a secure manner from anywhere in the world. We are also providing new functionality to support our education and research. For example, we have recently launched the Self-Service Cloud, which enables members of our community to seamlessly access various cloud environments and reduce the need for local physical servers and networks on campus. We’ll shortly be embarking on a replacement of our entire campus IT network, both cabled and wireless, to substantially improve the digital experience.

Income and expenditure during 2022/23

Income grew by 10% in the year to £858.1 million (2021: £776.7 million) following growth across all key income streams. Student tuition fees grew 11% to £388.4 million (2021: £349.8 million) with income from international students showing the largest increase of 21%, reflecting continued high demand from overseas and our strategy to further internationalise our student body. Fee income from home students demonstrated a more modest increase of 4%.

Research grant and contract income grew by 9% to £192.8 million (2021: £176.4 million) with income from Research Councils growing by 12% and more than offsetting a 10% reduction in research income from UK-based charities who are taking longer to recover from the after-effects of the pandemic. It was very pleasing that we continued to grow research income, which is a good proxy for the amount of research we are undertaking, in line with our growth in student tuition fees.

Other income of £148.9 million showed growth of 18% (2021: £126.3 million) driven by a 58% increase in revenue from residences, catering and conferences. This reflected pre-pandemic levels of income with the 2021 comparative year having been significantly impacted by national lockdowns and by the decision to provide rent rebates to students adversely affected. Donations of £4.9 million recognised in the accounts (2021: £17.9 million) were significantly down but the prior year figures included a one-off, £7-million gift of scientific equipment and the £7-million recognition of donated heritage assets. It should be noted that total income from philanthropic sources last year was £29m – a record for the University. This support was recognised across multiple income streams including our research grants and contracts income and our endowment donations.

Staff costs, excluding one-off USS pensions costs, grew by 8%, which is broadly in line with our growth in tuition fees and research income. This increase is largely accounted for by the 460 new academic and Professional Services jobs created. These new jobs have helped us to address some workload challenges and provided opportunities for local people, as well as attracting further talent from overseas.

Other operating expenses were back to their pre-pandemic levels at £287.5 million, an increase of 24% on the prior year (2021: £231.9 million) where, owing to the impact of the pandemic, expenditure had been prioritised primarily on staff and students and essential operation of the estate.

Now and looking to the future

Financial margins for the new academic and financial year that we are now in, and for the next few years to come, are a lot tighter than they’ve been in recent history. We aim to keep our core education and research activities in a ‘break even’ position, excluding grant monies we receive for capital assets, any investment gains and losses on the Bristol Endowment Funds, and any valuation changes for both the properties we use and staff pension schemes. This is a tough challenge given the lack of any prospect of our largest income stream – home undergraduate tuition fees – being raised in the foreseeable future, alongside significant cost inflation. We are acutely aware of the impact of inflation on our students and staff. Our key objectives are to support the whole University community through these challenging times, to preserve jobs, and to make sure that we take opportunities and make investment decisions that will help ensure the medium-to-long-term success of our institution.

It is likely that we will continue to grow our academic endeavour over the coming years as we build on the success of the excellent REF 2021 results and many people from both home and overseas want to come and study and our institution. Further growth is not without its challenges, and it needs to be the right growth that helps us to achieve our academic potential. However, growth represents a considerably lower set of risks and issues than standing still or shrinking. It will not be possible to retain our existing broad academic endeavour and protect jobs in the current economic and fiscal environment without the right growth, managed well.

The Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus is at the heart of the next phase of our growth and development strategy. It will facilitate an expansion in our research, enterprise and education activities in exciting areas that are important to the future prosperity of our city region. The new campus will also facilitate around 3,000 new purpose-built student beds over the next four years.

We have a choice as to whether we want to be a good regional university, or one of the best in the world. It is essential that our community fosters a strong sense of ambition and entrepreneurial spirit for our University, and for our city, in order that our institution prospers for the next century and achieves even greater things. Given the passion, ingenuity and collegiality I see on a daily basis, I am sure that it will.


Research culture: enhancing the environment in which research happens

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of being appointed Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research Culture. There’s been a great deal of interest in research culture in recent years – from the Royal Society and Wellcome, among others. And last year the UK Government published its Research and Development People and Culture Strategy. But research culture is a difficult concept to define and will mean different things to different people.

It can include how we evaluate and support research, and what we reward, including how we recognise diverse contributions to research and different research career paths. And there isn’t a single research culture– research groups, departments, schools, faculties, institutions and countries – as well as different disciplines – will all have different but overlapping cultures.

So, research culture is complicated; but it’s clearly also important. Those issues of how we evaluate and support research, and what we reward and recognise, impacts on not only our research outputs but also – more importantly – on ourselves as researchers, and our colleagues at all career stages (including the technicians and professional services staff who support research activity). A positive research culture, where people feel valued and rewarded, as well as both challenged and supported, is essential if we are to produce high quality research outputs. It’s also vitally important for attracting and retaining the most talented individuals with values that align with the research culture we aspire to – a vision I hope to co-create with the Bristol community over the next year.

The creation of a role focused on research culture highlights the importance that we place on getting this right. We were also fortunate that this appointment aligned with the award of funding from Research England to “Enhance Research Culture”, which all institutions in England that receive QR funding received. With input from various parts of the University, we identified projects in four broad areas – Understanding Ourselves, Supporting People, Developing Training, and Enhancing Infrastructure. These map on to the priority areas identified in the Research England Circular Letter, and those highlighted in the recent Enhancing Research Culture meeting.

Examples of the areas we’re investing this funding in range from promoting the uptake of ORCiD IDs and providing open access fees for recent postgraduate students, through to support for emerging initiatives, such as the Inclusive Research Collective – which aims to educate researchers about biased and exclusionary practices in research. We’re also piloting an extension of Bristol’s reciprocal mentoring scheme, which challenges – and to some extent inverts – the traditional power dynamic of conventional mentoring schemes. It will be exciting to see how these projects develop, and we’re keen to ensure that at least some can be sustained beyond the initial funded period.

We were also able to allocate a substantial proportion of this funding to small-scale seed funding, which was open to applications from academic and professional services staff at all career stages. This scheme was considerably over-subscribed – testament to the grass-roots enthusiasm for activity in this space. Unfortunately, this meant that we couldn’t fund every proposal, but we were able to fund a number of exciting projects in a range of areas, including several led by postgraduate research students. The hope is that we will be able to secure further funding in the future to support more projects. Until then, this activity will help to foster new and innovative approaches to promoting a positive research culture.

It’s already clear that there’s a great deal of exciting activity across Bristol. Linking that activity together, and supporting it, will be a key part of my new role. Another will be listening to colleagues to better understand what people think we are doing well, what we could do better, and to find out more about what’s already happening. We’ve run a brief survey to begin this process and will be looking at the responses over the next few weeks. I’m keen to hear from anyone who’d like to contribute to this process. If you want to talk about research culture, find about more about what we’re planning, and help us improve how we work, do get in touch!

Celebrating the new £10m ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

Image of Judith Squires After two years of online celebrations, I was exceptionally proud to join colleagues in person last month for a Provost Celebration of Academic Achievement. We were celebrating the major £10m funding success of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Centre for Sociodigital Futures, led by the University of Bristol.

The Bristol-led Centre for Sociodigital Futures has an ambitious research agenda, focussing on the intersections of digital technologies and social practices, and what might be done to drive these towards fair and sustainable ways of life.

Its aim, as described by its Co-Directors, Professors Susan Halford and Dale Southerton, is to “investigate these sociodigital futures in the making across diverse domains of social life and different areas of digital innovation to explore where it might be possible to tip the balance towards inclusive, reflexive and sustainable trajectories.”

How do our sociodigital futures take shape?

Digital technologies are transforming everyday life and bold claims are being made about how intelligent robots, autonomous vehicles and the ‘metaverse’ will shape our futures. These claims are important because they drive corporate investments, government policies and business strategies, and they inform our hopes and fears for daily life. Yet we know from the past that futures claimed rarely turn out as predicted.

The interplay of digital technologies with the complex realities of everyday life produces multiple and unexpected outcomes, with far reaching implications for the economy, politics and social life. And, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crisis, and widening inequalities, what lies ahead seems more uncertain than ever.

The new Centre aims to generate new approaches to fairer and more sustainable societies; to render emerging sociodigital futures both “intelligible and actionable” with direct impact on policymaking, organisational practice, community participation and technology design.

A flagship investment and a true collaboration

The ESRC Research Centres are flagship investments, which are expected to be national and international Centres of Excellence. Only four or five centres are funded every two years, across the full range of Social Science disciplines. In this round, there were 89 original expressions of interest to the ESRC, with five bids funded.

It brings together world-leading expertise across eight schools in Social Sciences, Engineering and the Arts, and will be led from the University of Bristol. Academic partners are based at the Universities of Edinburgh, Lancaster, Birmingham, Goldsmiths University of London, and University of the Arts, London.

The centre will also work in collaboration with core strategic partners BT, Defra, Maybe, Locality, the National Cybersecurity Centre and UNESCO, and has an international partner network across five continents.

The ambitious research agenda will explore how digital devices, services and data are shaping (and being shaped by) everyday practices of consuming, caring, learning, moving (people and goods) and organising.

At the same time, the Centre will explore how cutting-edge technologies – artificial intelligence, high performance networks, robotics, and augmented/ virtual and extended reality – are imagined and innovated for a range of futures linked to these areas of practice.

The event itself showed the extent of this collaboration and we heard speeches from Professor Phil Taylor (PVC Research), Professor Simon Tormey (Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences & Law), Professor Karla Pollmann (Dean of Arts) and Professor Ian Bond (Dean of Engineering), as well as from Susan and Dale.

We were also pleased to welcome some of our partners and raise a celebratory glass with them.

Next steps

A lot of preparation work for the Centre for Sociodigital Futures is already underway, with a planned started date of 1 May 2022. The Centre will run for an initial five years, but it is expected there will be opportunities to renew funding beyond that.

I want to pay tribute to Professors Susan Halford and Dale Southerton, and the team in our Research and Enterprise division (RED), who supported the bid development, and congratulations to everyone who contributed to this fantastic achievement.

Find out more about the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures on our website.

There has never been a more important time to look after our mental health

Today is University Mental Health Day, a campaign jointly run by Student Minds and the University Mental Health Advisors Network. 

Looking after our community’s mental health is, of course, a year-round commitment. So why – you may ask – is Thursday 3 March important?  

It’s an opportunity to bring our University community together around an issue that affects us all, and to join a nationwide conversation with other institutions. We want to help ensure no colleague or student feels alone with their mental health.  

Change, transition and wellbeing

For students, going to university has always been a time of change. Many are leaving home for the first time to experience a new city, new friends and a new way of life.  Although this can be very exciting and enjoyable, many students face difficulties during the transition to their new life – the last couple of years more than ever.

It’s also been a challenging time for our nearly 7,500 members of staff. I’ve previously talked about how I found feeling isolated and dealing with the problems created by the pandemic difficult, and I know from talking with colleagues how many of you have found the past couple of years especially hard.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has put greater pressure on us all but has particularly affected students whose experience of higher education has been far removed from what they imagined. Universities have an important role in looking after the wellbeing of their students. We aim to build a culture of proactively managing wellbeing​ through self-help, peer support, education around drugs and alcohol, sexual consent, and safety on campus,​ as well as programmes like B:Active Healthy minds 

Our Student Wellbeing Service offers help and guidance to anyone experiencing challenges, or just wanting some extra support. Our Wellbeing Access​ team can triage and respond to students, directing them to appropriate services. We’ve kept waiting times for counselling low, and staff have trained in specialist areas, including support for those affected by sexual violence.   

More students tell us about problems affecting their mental health before they arrive, and we have increased resources for our disability and mental health advisors to provide additional support. Finally, more than 90% of our students now ‘opt in’ to allow us to contact someone if we are concerned about them.  

The Zero Suicide Alliance

This is not something that any institution can do alone. We work closely with our partners in the city to support our thousands of young people, often arriving in Bristol for the first time – from GPs and other NHS services to local organisations like Nilaari and Bristol Drugs Project.  

One of the charities we have recently partnered with is the Zero Suicide Alliance (ZSA), hosted by Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust. It works with organisations across the UK to raise awareness of suicide and its contributing factors and aims to help break the stigma that still surrounds suicide.  

We are encouraging all students and staff to take an online suicide awareness course developed by ZSA in partnership with the NHS. The course has been designed to help us have potentially life-changing conversations with our friends, our colleagues and our wider community.  

The training will help you spot any warning signs, give advice on how to have a conversation with someone you’re worried about, and tell you where to go to get further support.   

If you do take the training, please look after yourself during the session. It’s designed to take 20 minutes, but we recommend allowing longer, so you can pause for breaks and take time to reflect. Try to do it alongside someone else if you can – either virtually or in person.  

I’ve done the training myself, and I was reminded how important it is to notice how those around us are; that it’s okay to ask questions if we’re concerned about someone, because although that may feel difficult to do, it can really help; and finally, that it’s really helpful to signpost where support is available.  

And please remember – today, tomorrow and every day: it’s okay to ask for help whenever you need it. Along with our wellbeing support for students, there is a variety of services available for staff too – including face-to-face counselling and online resources, which you can find on the wellbeing pages of our website. 

Thank you for reading this blog post – by looking out for each other we can make the University a safer place for everyone.  

Take the training: There is a specific training course for students, which can be accessed via the ZSA website. For colleagues, you can find the general training in Develop – just log in and search ‘ZSA’ in the catalogue. 

You can find our Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy online.