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.