Bristol Research: taking stock and looking ahead

Joining the University of Bristol as Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise would have been an exciting prospect in any given year, but doing so in 2020 has really brought to life the depth of expertise that exists across the institution.

Thanks to the support of colleagues across our community, I’ve been able to fully immerse myself in Bristol’s vibrant research environment. I’ve also witnessed the University’s hugely impressive and inspiring research response to COVID-19.

Six months into the role, my respect and appreciation for the dedication, skill, and agility with which staff and students contribute to Bristol’s scholarly, educational, and civic endeavour has only grown.

Strategic ambitions

As PVC-R&E, one of my key responsibilities is to shape Bristol’s research and knowledge exchange activity in line with the University’s strategic ambitions. In doing so, I want to ensure that our strategic direction expresses the intellectual curiosity and desire to make a positive impact that drives so many colleagues.

It was clear in my first few days just how strongly Bristol’s culture is rooted in an ethos of community, co-production, and social responsibility. It’s important that our institution-level thinking reflects these qualities, and our motivations for doing research.

The Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus, for instance, is a fantastic example of how the University can both serve our local and global communities and deliver on our civic, business and research ambitions. It will set the stage for us to develop future relationships and collaborations and represents an exciting new chapter for our University. I aim to ensure that it remains very much rooted in a shared academic vision that helps us foster innovation and positive civic impact across the board.

Striking the right balance

As a world-class research institution, I see our university as an exceptionally skilled tight-rope walker; one able to successfully bridge daunting rifts due to our ability to retain and recalibrate a delicate balance. This is the balance between discovery-led research that helps define the challenges of the future, and challenge-led research, which helps to address and solve existing ones. It is also the balance between interdisciplinary excellence and its roots in strong core disciplines.

What it’s not, however, is the status quo. Rather, this ability to recognise the need for adjustment and responsiveness helps us find ways to reach an equilibrium that is inclusive, diverse, and all the stronger for it.

What’s next?

A key priority for the coming weeks and months is to focus on what further immediate support can be provided to help mitigate against COVID-related research and enterprise disruption.

I will also work with colleagues to ensure that the quality of Bristol’s research base receives the recognition it deserves, for instance via the Research Excellence Framework, and that we are ready to respond to whatever new research landscape is shaped by Brexit.

Longer-term, I’m looking forward to working closely with colleagues and students across the University to determine a strategic institutional approach for how our fantastic research portfolio can help address key structural issues linked with, or caused by, challenges such as Brexit, climate change, or persistent social inequalities.

I want to celebrate our unique strengths by raising the profile of the University’s research and enterprise activities, both within the institution and beyond. To do so, I’ll engage with a wide range of partners, develop strategies to further enhance these strengths and explore how they can be translated into positive societal impact at the regional, national, and international level.

My own research area, in which I have worked for over 25 years, is energy systems. Pursuing ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions and becoming carbon neutral by 2050 happens to be a great example of where further defining and supporting existing focus areas of Bristol’s research base can help address global challenges in a sustainable and fair way.

Our region is already a hub for climate expertise and Bristol was the first university in the UK to declare a climate emergency. We are also fortunate to have strong partnerships with excellent external organisations such as the Met Office. This all means we are very well placed to be at the forefront of helping to develop real world solutions to meeting ‘net zero’.

I want to identify other research areas where this type of targeted curation of established focal areas of excellence, in combination with nurturing emerging distinguished fields, can help raise our institutional profile and scale up our ambitions.

There’s no doubt this has been a uniquely challenging time for the University, but in looking ahead to the next six months and beyond, I want to ensure that we make the most of what we’ve learned during these most difficult months. The interdisciplinary, challenge-led approach personified by Bristol UNCOVER and ReCOVer are obvious examples. I want us to retain as much of the positive learning and agility we’ve gained over the last year and apply best practice to how we work together going forward.

I look forward to meeting many more of you over the coming months and to continue learning more about the incredible research happening at Bristol.

 

Change and continuity: my University reflections

As I’m about to retire from the University after more than 40 years, I’ve been reflecting on what has and hasn’t changed in that time, what we’ve achieved and where we might be headed.

It’s fair to say that, in some ways, everything has changed. In others, very little. Of course, digitalisation has become ubiquitous and influences almost everything we do – and, in particular, how we do it (bear in mind that 40 years ago we had no email, PCs, mobile phones or internet!).

The availability of data, facts and knowledge was vastly different and so, by implication, the academic role of universities in the generation, curation and dissemination of knowledge, has transformed. Then, as now, we faced turbulence in public policy, with universities in the firing line. We also had a Nobel Laureate as Chancellor!

For all that, the University remains a remarkable community in which to meet and engage with a fantastic array of interesting people with a fascinating mix of talents, highly motivated by their work and profoundly committed to excellence – and all the more so because it is more open to its environment than before. It was then, and remains, a privilege and pleasure to be among those people – particularly our students, with their restless appetite for a better world. For change and growth.

The policy environment in which universities work has evolved dramatically as has the society around us. On the downside, the pressures to commodify education pose a threat to the value and values of universities. Despite these pressures, we can still be confident that that Bristol’s central mission is still “to pursue and share knowledge and understanding, both for their own sake and to help individuals and society fulfil their potential.”

The expectations of our own student and staff community are for the University to be an agent of public good – as we should always be – although some of the specifics have shifted; for example, to address climate change.

Our staff also have high expectations, again rightly, of us as an employer and that we sustain the best elements of our culture. Some aspects of University life and culture have certainly changed for the better over these years – Bristol is now more professional, and a less ‘clubby’ and complacent university. We are also on a long overdue journey to increased diversity and inclusion and a coming to terms with our history that, although started, is far from finished. Thankfully, we have managed to sustain the collegial aspects of our culture and we have developed ways of enhancing the dialogue between disciplines in both education and research while respecting the deep capabilities of those disciplines.

Elsewhere, our physical estate has grown, been replenished, developed and improved; in some parts out of all recognition – and from a very low ebb 30 years ago (when in Chemistry we were used to catching the drips from the leaking roof in buckets around the foyer!).

Personally, I welcome the increased expectation that universities should expand beyond the “ivory tower” focus on teaching and research and play a direct role in enabling wider society to thrive. Indeed, I see this as integral to our mission.

For us in Bristol, that has meant, for example, launching the National Composites Centre (and the Science Park with it), creating Bristol Health Partners with our allies in the NHS and city, being at the heart of cultural development, entrepreneurial and Green Capital endeavours and the wider civic life that is now manifest in the Bristol One City approach. All this has happened (mainly in the past decade) alongside an outstanding performance in the last REF (driven by our research) and rightly increased emphasis on education and the student experience. This is a remarkable collective performance and one that I’ve been proud to be party to.

Where next? As I write we face a literally incredible set of circumstances – a global pandemic still growing, profound and systemic inequalities (both global and local), climate and ecological emergencies that will be with us for many decades, the UK in the midst of the biggest geopolitical shift in generations triggered by leaving the EU, with a fragile economy and society only partly recovered from the banking crash and that now risk being tipped over by the twin threats of COVID and Brexit.

Despite these daunting challenges I feel we, as a University, are in a vital and powerful place – both as an institution and to act for and with the communities we serve, locally and globally. We do this best by staying true to our core mission as a research intensive university of global reach and continuing to evolve and draw strength from our place and, in turn, to sustain it and its enduring values – building on Bristol’s complex thousand year history of enterprise, exploration and non-conformity to address the critical challenges that face us (and those to come) by producing the ideas, innovations and people the world needs.

Our Annual Report and Financial Statements for 2019/20 and our outlook for 2021

This week we’ve published our Annual Report and Financial Statements for 2019/20. It showcases just some of the outstanding work that colleagues and students have undertaken over the last year in very challenging circumstances. The contributions of our community in helping society respond to the COVID-19 pandemic at both local and global levels are truly impressive. It also sets out our financial performance for the last academic and financial year and provides a snapshot of our financial position as it was on 31 July 2020.

Research

Our research activity was the key area impacted by the first national lockdown, between March and July 2020. Many colleagues were unable to access facilities and undertake the interactions that were needed to progress their projects. Activity was 7% lower than the previous year: a change from the sustained year-on-year growth in research activity in recent years.

This temporary setback was necessary at the time to manage the risk that COVID-19 posed across the wider community. We have subsequently learnt more about COVID-19 as a society. Government policy, based on this evolving understanding of the virus, reflects the view that the risk to ongoing research activity is now lower than previously anticipated.

Education and longer-term uncertainties

Despite the difficulties we’ve faced, learning activity has remained extremely resilient. This is not completely unexpected, for two reasons.

Firstly, the initial national lockdown occurred at a point where students were invested in completing the academic year, with a relatively low proportion of tuition still to take place across most of our programmes. Our student withdrawal rate in Term 3 of academic year 2019/20 was lower than in recent years, despite the lockdown.

Secondly, opportunities for school leavers and graduates to obtain work or travel are reduced at present. Universities are typically counter-cyclical to the general economy, and we are seeing greater demand from prospective students. That demand is often accompanied by increased investment from government to build the research, innovation and infrastructure economies needed to help sustain the country in the short term and position it well for the medium term.

Our student population grew by 7% during 2019/20. We expect similar levels of growth over the course of the current 2020/21 academic year, although it is still too soon to make accurate forecasts – we are still building our evidence base to understand how students are responding to blended learning, and some 4,500 students elected to start the academic year online. However, around 2,000 students have told us they are intending to travel to Bristol for the first time for Teaching Block 2.

We are left, then, with several important questions. Primarily, will student withdrawal rates be greater, less or about the same as usual? And what will the impact of vaccinations be? In response to these uncertainties, we need to continue to proceed with caution until the risks of student withdrawal are better understood, with the picture expected to become clearer in the new year.

What we do know is that demand for our other services, including residential accommodation, sport and catering, is down. This is the principal reason for a £23-million decline in ‘Other Income’ year-on-year between 2018/19 and 2019/20. We expect the decline to be sustained throughout most of the present year.

Residential income losses are expected to reach at least £25 million from the onset of the pandemic to the end of this academic year. This sum could be considerably greater if a higher proportion of learning activity were to move online. We therefore need to maintain adequate financial headroom to manage all of these uncertainties without adversely impacting our staff and academic endeavour.

Jobs and recruitment

Protecting jobs has been, and will continue to be, a key objective. We furloughed close to 900 colleagues over the summer period. Virtually all have now returned to work given the very significant institutional workload. Our temporary worker bank is also being fully utilised. However, we will continue to furlough permanent, fixed-term and temporary staff to protect their incomes as best we can, where it is not possible for their work to continue as a direct consequence of COVID-19.

Our investment in people has been significant. Our colleague base grew by 396 (6%) full-time equivalents over 2019/20. Investment in existing and new staff (excluding non-cash pension accounting) increased by £30 million. We have not stopped recruiting at any point. However, we’ve had to be really careful to make sure that we have only been recruiting the roles we require at the present time. This has helped us maintain the necessary financial headroom to manage the ongoing pandemic and reduce the risk of future job losses.

In prioritising recruitment and job protection, against the backdrop of falling residential, sport and catering income, we have been obliged to pause several planned capital projects. Our staff and students are the University’s top priority and our cash position remains healthy. This is critical to our collective future.

The 2019/20 surplus

So why, despite reporting a surplus for 2019/20 of £81.8 million, have we still been very careful with our resources? The answer lies in the accounting treatment for the deficit in the USS pension scheme and capital grants received during the year.

We are required to reflect the future value of payments due to be made over the coming years to USS to fund the actuarial assessed deficit in the scheme. This helps ensure that the future value of assets in USS are sufficient to pay the pension benefits earned. We had to recognise a very significant expense of £105.9 million in the 2018/19 accounts following the 2017 valuation of USS, leading to an overall reported deficit of £67.7 million. A subsequent valuation was undertaken in 2018 to respond to some of the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel. This resulted in a reduction in the USS deficit and consequently the level of deficit recovery payments the University is contracted to make.

We have had to reflect this change in the 2019/20 accounts by reversing £63.6 million of the expense charged in the previous year in our income and expenditure statement. This is responsible for the majority of the £81.8-million surplus, alongside £26.7 million of capital grants (income received to pay for new assets where the expense is recorded initially on the Statement of Financial Position and not as operating expenditure). This leaves an underlying deficit for 2019/20 of £8.8 million, which was funded out of reserves.

Looking ahead

The lead indicators for our institution such as research grant awards and student applications look very promising for the future. Our Board of Trustees this month approved a plan to invest more in people and research in the New Year, if and when the present risks relating to student participation in on-campus learning recede.

In the meantime, we need to keep proceeding with care over the next few months as the government rolls out its Winter Plan for managing COVID-19.

It has been a very difficult year for our community, but your collective efforts have helped steer the University though what I’m sure we all hope has been the worst of the storm. As normality slowly returns, we will continue to invest in our academic endeavour, our Professional Services, and the future facilities we need to restore our place among the world’s top 50 institutions.

 

An update on our institutional approach to COVID-19

In this latest update on our institutional approach to COVID-19, we set out the University’s new offer of free mass lateral flow antigen (asymptomatic) testing ahead of the winter break. We also outline plans for January 2021, our revised policy on the use of visors during in-person teaching, and preliminary findings from last month’s staff wellbeing pulse survey.

Mass testing of students 

From Monday 30 November to Wednesday 9 December, we will be offering free mass lateral flow antigen (asymptomatic) testing for all our students. These lateral flow tests can return a rapid result.

Students will be offered two tests, ideally leaving three days between the first and second test. Results will go to the student directly. If students do return a positive result, they will be required to self-isolate and book a standard PCR test. If this test also returns a positive result, provided it was taken by 9 December they should be able to complete the required period of self-isolation and still travel home for the winter break.

Our two test sites will be located in the Bristol Students’ Union Anson Rooms (BS8 1LN) and at North Village Wills Conference Centre (BS9 1AE). Students can book their tests online and read what to expect on the day and what to do if they test positive, and find more detailed information on our new ‘Mass testing’ webpage.

Asymptomatic staff intending to travel may also make use of this testing service. However, please do keep in mind that the focus of this particular window is student travel. We are currently in active dialogue with Public Health England to explore whether we are able to offer testing beyond the end of the national testing window. Meetings are ongoing this week and we will look to confirm our position as soon as possible thereafter.

January 2021

Subject to any change in government guidance, and in line with our risk assessment framework, we will be continuing our blended learning and assessment offering to students in January. We do however wish to provide students with the opportunity to stagger their return to campus in 2021 following the winter vacation, to allow them to make the best choices about their study circumstances given the continuing impact of COVID-19.

We are asking Schools to decide on a programme basis whether students are required to be in Bristol for weeks 11 and 12 and the assessment period, and to communicate this accordingly. We anticipate a second testing regime will underpin their safe return prior to any in-person teaching.

Face coverings and visors on campus

As part of our commitment to listening to feedback and taking evidence-based decisions where we can improve on our practices, we are making some refinements to our current guidance and operations, which we hope colleagues will find helpful.

Following feedback from the Student Pulse Survey, debate at the recent special meeting of Senate and consideration at the University Executive Board about the impact wearing both a face-covering and visor can have on teaching and learning, we have reviewed and revised our requirement for visors to be worn in addition to face coverings in in-person teaching spaces.

Updated SAGE and related sub-groups now advise that, while face coverings are likely to be effective at reducing the emission of respiratory droplets and aerosols containing virus into the environment, the effectiveness of standard visors as a mitigation, especially where two-metre distancing can be maintained, is now considered minimal.

In addition, the evidence in terms of cases suggests there is little to no evidence of transmission of the virus in teaching spaces across the campus and that the risk of transmission is low.

Based on this, University Executive Board has decided that visors are therefore no longer mandatory. Face coverings will continue to be mandatory in all our spaces unless there is a specific risk assessment in place that defines different measures.

Face visors will still be available for use if teaching staff or students feel wearing both would provide reassurance or where there is an underlying health condition.

Staff wellbeing survey

We are currently finalising our analysis of last month’s staff wellbeing pulse survey, the preliminary findings of which were shared on today’s livestream. The survey was designed to take a temperature check of aspects of our wellbeing and how it’s supported. With more than 2,000 respondents, headline findings include:

  • 55% of colleagues agreed or strongly agreed their overall wellbeing at work was good;
  • 72% of colleagues agreed or strongly agreed their manager shows sufficient concern about their wellbeing;
  • compared to 2018, fewer colleagues are never (-4%) or occasionally (-9%) stressed;
  • more colleagues are frequently (+9%) or always (+3%) stressed;
  • there is a difference between academic staff and Professional Services staff responses, both in terms of how staff feel about their workload and the extent to which they engage in wellbeing support. Academics are less likely to engage with or be aware of support but are more likely to experience stress.

There is clearly further work for us to do in this space, and the findings of the survey will be considered by University Executive Board and others over the coming weeks. Initial Faculty and Divisional Data packs will be shared by 30 November to support local discussion and planning while we continue to review the additional comments staff provided in the survey. The summary findings and the follow-up action plan will also be available to all colleagues on the Staff Survey site once the analysis is complete.

Light at the end of the tunnel 

It’s a phenomenal achievement of the global scientific community that there are now three (and, potentially, soon four) safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon. We can all be particularly proud of our colleagues in the COVID-19 Emergency Research Group (UNCOVER) for their considerable and ongoing contribution to understanding the virus and supporting the development of these vaccines (including the University’s role as one of the biggest recruiters to the Oxford vaccine trials).

Thanks to these extraordinary efforts, the world now has a promising path out of the pandemic. However, while we are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, there remains some way to go before we see the end of the pandemic. In the meantime, we will continue to listen to feedback, take evidence-informed decisions and be guided by our institutional risk assessment framework.

Stay safe and thank you again for all your hard work.

An update on our institutional approach to COVD-19

This is the first in a new series of regular updates, setting out how the University is addressing the challenges of COVID-19 and keeping our students, staff and neighbouring communities safe.

This update is focused on how the University’s daily risk assessment framework helps us to quickly identify challenges, make informed decisions and address specific colleague concerns.

The University’s risk assessment framework

The Department for Education has set out four COVID response tiers that are specific to universities, colleges and schools. These detail the government’s expectations for teaching provision under different levels of risk, as assessed by Public Health England (PHE). Our community is currently assessed to be in Tier 1. This means we are expected to continue providing blended learning with face-to-face tuition until 3 December, when the government’s student travel “window” begins, followed by a temporary transition to full online provision by 9 December. We will also continue to follow public health guidance, including, for example, the appropriate use of face coverings.

Each university is also required by the government to provide a local Outbreak Plan, setting out both the safety mitigation in place and its approach for responding to any rise in COVID-19 cases on campus. Our own Outbreak Plan is underpinned by a robust multi-layered approach to risk management.

The first, foremost layer is our individual risk assessment process. This holistically assesses individual staff risk, taking both clinical and non-clinical factors into account, with the aim of safeguarding colleagues at most risk of adverse or serious reactions to COVID-19. If you are concerned about your safety and have not already done so, please make use of this individual risk assessment process at the earliest opportunity.

The next layer is our activity and space-based risk assessments. This includes regular assessments made by Campus Division, but also the risk assessments colleagues must make prior to undertaking education or research activities. For example, considering whether existing research risks have changed in light of our new COVID-secure working arrangements. This is all underpinned by our COVID Working Guide which sets out the overarching roles, responsibilities, mitigations and measures in place to reduce the risks to as low as is reasonably practicable.

Finally, monitoring the number of new and active cases in our community is central to our overall risk management approach. Following daily analysis of reported case numbers (including at living circle level), senior colleagues from across the University attend Daily Situation Review meetings with PHE and Bristol City Council where that data is reviewed in detail.

This Daily Situation Review process then feeds into PHE’s weekly Risk Assessment of the University. This is where we consider specific issues of concern raised by colleagues; issues such as background rates of infection and their cause; the effectiveness of our interventions and controls; and whether there is evidence that cases in our community are linked. It is also where PHE make their weekly recommendation on our overall operating model and COVID response tier.

This approach to risk management has prompted us to introduce several successful mitigations which have helped reduce the level of outbreak in our community, such as the deployment of Mobile Testing Units where they have been most needed.

As things stand, it’s encouraging to see that the daily number of new staff and student cases continues to fall – from 202 on 13 October to 31 on 11 November. In addition, the number of active cases in our community fell from a mid-October peak of 949 to 126 on 11 November. Over that same period, the seven-day rolling average has also fallen from 103 to 23.

I hope these figures provide some reassurance and demonstrate that the careful steps we are taking through our approach to risk management have helped reduce the risk of infection on campus. We will continue, of course, to do all we can to bring those case numbers down even further.

Thank you 

It was heartening to see the thanks and recognition shared by colleagues on last week’s livestream for the fantastic work of Professional Services colleagues across our community over these past few months. Your tireless efforts have indeed made our blended learning environment possible, helped keep us all safe, and ensured our University is functioning as best it can at this difficult time. Thank you!

If you’d like to send your own special message of thanks to a colleague or team across the University, don’t forget that our new Thanks and Recognition Wall is on hand to help you do just that. If you’ve not already done so, please consider sending a message and help make a colleague’s day.

I hope you’ve found this update useful. I’ll be sharing further updates in the coming weeks.

Celebrating Black History Month

Black History Month 2020 provides an important and timely opportunity to explore Black history, to reflect on and celebrate the contribution of Black and Black heritage staff and students to our University, and to discuss ways in which we can deliver our shared commitment to addressing structural and cultural racism.

Bristol-based historian David Olusoga recently reflected that: ‘The summer of 2020 was one of those moments when it felt as if history’s fast-forward button had been pressed and the pace of historical events suddenly accelerated.”  Situated in the city that was at the heart of many of these events, we hope that our Black History Month celebrations and explorations will “be infused with the spirit of this remarkable year” in which many people have engaged with ideas of race and racism as never before.

Having created a University Anti-Racism Steering Group this summer, I have been proud to see us launch a range of initiatives to both promote Black History and help bring about positive change.

One of these initiatives was the launch last week of a landmark new £1,000,000 Bristol Black Scholarships Programme.  Access to higher education is one of the most powerful ways to foster social mobility and enable individuals to realise their life ambitions. Yet we know that Black and Black-heritage students have historically been under-represented at every level of study in higher education across the UK. We have been working to address this for some time through a range of targeted initiatives, but we want to go further to improve the diversity of our student population. This ambitious new initiative marks an important step in our work to address the historical under-representation of Black and Black-heritage students and make our University truly inclusive.  I am very grateful for the generous support of our alumni and friends who have contributed to its development.

Other important initiatives aim to address the effects of Britain’s colonial past on our institution. Earlier this year we committed to reviewing the names of buildings named after families with links to the slave trade.  I’m pleased that, as the first formal outcome of this work, we have renamed our Colston Street accommodation as ‘No.33’.  Research is also underway, led by Professor Olivette Otele, to inform our review of the names of other University buildings.

Professor Otele was also recently appointed as the Independent Chair of Bristol’s Commission on Race Equality (CORE) by the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees. CORE will work to address experiences of inequality often experienced by Bristol’s BAME communities in areas such as education, employment, health, housing and criminal justice. I’m delighted that Dr Jane Khawaja and Dr Marie-Annick Gournet have also been appointed as Commissioners to support CORE’s work tackling structural inequalities across our city.

It is great to see a wealth of university-wide activities underway to decolonise our curriculum.  Bristol Institute of Learning and Teaching (BILT) have established a learning community to support this important work across our academic programmes.  In an exciting initiative, we have worked in partnership with CARGO (Charting African Resilience Generating Opportunities – a Bristol collective of artists, poets and filmmakers) to create UniversalCity – a digital platform to showcase African and African Diaspora-owned businesses and community organisations in Bristol, explore the heritage and history of key points of interest around our city, and encourage students and staff to join in voluntary work to support local communities.  It is really heartening that we have worked so productively with CARGO to open up new possibilities for socially-engaged inclusive education.  I am hopeful that this will foster deeper links with diverse communities across the city.

As part of this ongoing discussion, I look forward to chairing a virtual panel event, ‘Towards a decolonised University’, on 22 October. This public online event will explore the importance of critical engagement with the ways in which the knowledge and resources we encounter at university is shaped by the impact of colonial power structures, and how do we create solutions which addresses racism and colonial legacy in our university. You can find out more and register for the event here.

The student BME Network and SU events team has also organised an excellent programme of online events throughout October, so do take a look at what’s coming up.

Elsewhere, to celebrate the first anniversary of our Be More Empowered for Success programme, the University will be unveiling our new Be More Empowered for Success portraits. These compelling new portraits celebrate our staff and students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds and will be on public display in the Reception Room of the Wills Memorial Building from 23 October.

There are many more initiatives underway throughout October. These both complement and build on our existing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion workstreams.

I hope that you will join us at some of this year’s Black History Month events – to celebrate the diversity of our community, reflect on our institutional history and reaffirm our commitment to building an open and inclusive community.

Thank you to everyone who is helping us develop these initiatives. I look forward to updating you on further progress in the coming months.

An update on the work of the Anti-Racism Steering Group

Following the publication of our Institutional Statement on Race Equality in March, and as part of our response to the Black Lives Matter movement in June, the senior leadership team announced the establishment of a new Anti-Racism Steering Group.

The Group, co-chaired by myself and Dr Jane Khawaja, aims to help the University develop strategies and take action to address individual, cultural and structural racism across our institution. Reporting directly to University Executive Board (UEB), the Group will develop an institutional action plan focused on key pillars that will incorporate:

  1. Teaching and Learning: to cohere with the attainment gap plan
  2. Recruitment: of staff and students, to include widening participation
  3. Naming: buildings and the crest
  4. Support: for students and staff – harassment policies and training.
  5. Governance: to include external validation and recognition
  6. Research and Civic Engagement: connects to city partners and collaborative research

As you can see, the Group has a wide-ranging remit and will build upon many of the activities and initiatives that are already in place. These include (but are by no means limited to):

  • Establishing the BAME Staff Network where colleagues can share a sense of community and work with us to ensure that BAME staff have a consistent and positive experience at the University;
  • Setting targets to significantly increase the number of Black students and Asian students enrolling at the University by 2025;
  • Creating the new post of Professor of the History of Slavery at the University, and the appointment of Professor Olivette Otele earlier this year;
  • Signing-up to the Race Equality Charter (REC) and our ambition to submit for recognition in 2021;
  • Delivering outreach work with local schools and community groups;
  • Increasing our support for local communities, most recently by reaching out to the Changing Your Mindset group in Bristol to support young people’s success;
  • Delivering the Insight into Bristol summer school programme which guarantees students who complete the programme an offer of a place at the university, usually at the contextual offer level;
  • Launching Report and Support – a new online platform that offers staff and students a quick and easy way to report specific incidents;
  • Developing our Stand Up Speak Out web resource bringing together a range of policy, support and learning resources for staff who may be experiencing or witnessing unacceptable behaviour at work;
  • Participating in the Stepping Up initiative, a positive action programme aimed at improving the representation of BAME people, as well as other groups, in senior leadership roles within Bristol and the wider region;
  • Launching an apprenticeship talent pipeline to drive ethnic diversity whilst taking into consideration the skills gaps present in underrepresented groups in industry demand areas such as Finance, IT, Human Resources, Engineering and the Creative Industries;
  • Publishing the results of our first Ethnicity Pay Gap Report and taking action to address any inequalities;
  • Introducing positive action measures and training in unconscious bias with a specific focus on recruitment and promotion of staff;
  • Funding research internships which provide paid experience in research for new graduates, in order to increase the number of BAME students progressing to postgraduate study;
  • Setting an ambitious target to eliminate the BAME awards gap at the university by 2025 and developed a comprehensive action plan to address this, informed by research we have commissioned from Bristol SU;
  • Beginning the work of decolonising our curricula, led by academic colleagues with expertise in this area;
  • Providing staff training in race equality; harassment and hate crime awareness training delivered by SARI; and intercultural awareness training delivered by Kynfolk;
  • Providing access to specialist counselling services for our BAME students and staff from Nilaari;
  • Establishing a web-based resource drawn from research published by University of Bristol researchers around race, racism and anti-racism;
  • Sponsoring the East Bristol Into University Centre which serves an area of the city with a high BAME population;
  • Supporting city-based projects such as CARGO (Charting African Resilience Generating Opportunities) and Iconic Black Britons.

Leading the case for legislative change

A key focus for members of the Steering Group will be a review of our recruitment practices. The senior leadership team is committed to increasing the racial diversity of the University’s workforce across all levels of our institution and we have initiated a range of action to support progress in this space over the years.

However, we recognise that after almost ten years of working within the constraints and uncertainty of the positive action measures included in the Equality Act 2010, more directive action is needed.

We believe that a tension exists within the existing legislation between direct discrimination and positive action measures. This tension has restricted efforts to improve the representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff across our organisations, our city and across the wider UK.

To that end, alongside several other local organisations and community groups, we are formally requesting that the government introduce an amendment to existing provisions in the Equality Act relating to direct discrimination.

This amendment aims to enable specific ethnic groups to be treated more favourably in employment that other ethnicities where we reasonably think that the specific ethnic group experiences disadvantage. It would also provide clarity and reassurance to employers in terms of what is and is not permissible by law to improve representation of specific ethnic groups in all levels of employment where they are currently under-represented.

Ultimately, an amendment of this kind would support all employers to take a flexible, evidence-based and focused approach that would actively seek to level the playing field and minimise barriers to employment experienced by different ethnic groups.

You can read more about the campaign in this Bristol 24/4 article which features our employability and opportunity manager, Rebecca Scott.

Next steps

I’m proud that out University is leading the way on this campaign and we hope to garner widespread support for our proposed changes. However, we recognise that parliamentary action can take time and success is not guaranteed. In the meantime, we will continue to develop a targeted and segmented approach to positive action measures with the view to develop their efficacy and impact across our community.

We must eradicate racial discrimination in all its forms from our University and ensure the experience of studying and working here is positive and welcoming for everyone, of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. We aim to be bold and far reaching in our action, as I hope the above example demonstrates.

There is still much work to do, but I look forward to updating you on further progress in the coming months.

 

Let’s lose the deficit language about online education

Reading the national press, you might think that universities had just performed the last rites over centuries of in-person and on-campus teaching.

The argument being peddled by journalists whose experience of lectures was clearly more inspirational than mine, is somewhat simplistic and misleading. It suggests that a curriculum without live lectures equates to the end of all in-person teaching, as if practicals, laboratories, seminars, and tutorials do not count. Headline catching it may be; true it is not.

There are good arguments why universities are putting lectures online. Any university which has a vague interest in keeping the R rate down and being public health spirited would not wish to cram 400 students into a large airless lecture mimicking a static version of the Diamond Princess, but with younger passengers.

Kill the sacred lecture cow

But the naivety of the journalists’ critique is not about public health, it’s about what counts as higher education, and the totemic status of lectures. Anyone who has worked within an inch of higher education in the last 10 to 15 years will know that attendance at live lectures has dwindled dramatically since the installation of lecture capture which records the dulcet or droning tones of a lecture.

Students vote with their feet, and when there is no value added of engagement, interaction or inspiration, they prefer to flick open their laptops and watch the lecture at a speed and time that suits them, fast-forwarding when they are bored, and replaying when they need to rehearse the material to grasp a tricky concept.

Long before the dawn of lecture capture, Graham Gibbs wrote a swingeing critique of this most venerated of teaching genres, entitled “Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing”. His argument, in a nutshell, was that students learn very little from most of their lectures. This argument has been borne out by Astin’s research in the USA, which demonstrated that student involvement and “close contact” with lecturers and other students was the stuff of learning in higher education.

Until the virus struck, online education was largely the preserve of the Open University. No other university would have chosen to offer online education as the way to sustain some or all of its provision.

Here and there, various universities had made forays into the digital, without allowing it to affect the primacy of traditional teaching approaches. Most older universities persisted with the convention of sepia-toned lectures in the rarefied atmosphere of wood-panelled rooms; some, both old and new, stretched the convention into funky new buildings which hinted at digital futures.

In yesterday’s world, groups of students trudged up hills and crowded in corridors holding laptops in one hand, lattes in the other. They listened, took notes (or not), made halting attempts to participate, even venturing one or two questions in the lecture halls, while others, more confident, dominated conversations in seminars.

Many endured a long silence: listening, waiting, and watching. In applied subjects, students often made a more vibrant entry into disciplinary conversations, whether through building model bridges in civil engineering, or rehearsing a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For most, conversations occurred in halls or houses of multiple occupancy, or through clubs and societies and at social gatherings.

Normal was the problem

This was higher education in the UK as we knew it before the new normal. We will all have some nostalgia for the way things were. But as many commentators have argued – “we cannot return to normal, because normal was the problem.”

Don’t get me wrong here – in person teaching is clearly a brilliant way of teaching, with all its nuance, spontaneity, sense-checking, embodiment and thrill of performance. Students in face to face contexts may enjoy an expansive experience of chatting on the way to class, in the library and laboratory, and in various hang outs, where so many deep conversations take place. This shapes who students are and who they become.

But I’m not sure universities had grasped the full potential of face to face education before the shutters came down on 23 March. Certainly, many lectures were patchily attended and caught in a strange time-warp.

Online education is showing me and my colleagues some fantastic things that we can do so much better and will, I hope, shape our practice as teachers in higher education forever. At the University of Bristol, we are running a series of digital design courses, and we have about 50 digital champions in schools working with the central Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching.

Today I was in a session with nearly 200 academics, and they were reflecting on their “Aha!” moments about online education from the emergency online pivot. Among this sample, some green shoots are poking through the rough ground which point to the potential of the digital to do some distinctive things. The list is not exhaustive but online education seems to:

  • personalise learning, with students working at their own pace and thoughtfully going back to material in their own time
  • trigger a shift from content-driven curricula (the idea of ‘covering content’) to carefully structured and selective bite-sized lectures with engaging tasks which
  • help students get to grips with concepts
  • draw out different voices and invite questions from students who do not routinely contribute to discussion in face to face sessions – when done well, it seems to
  • be more inclusive
  • prompt student engagement, agency and autonomy
  • take the focus off assessment and enable more learning through carefully designed tasks
  • promote participation, writing, and an enduring kind of community.

This all may sound a bit utopian in our decidedly dystopian world, but I want to make a case for shifting the narrative about online education from a deficit one.

It’s different from in-person education, and it struggles to replicate practice-based activities, and the human interactions you need to develop the skills to become a dentist, for example. But we need to find ways to ensure that we see some advantages to this different (albeit unchosen) mode of education and garner the benefits of its particular world of possibilities. From my interactions with colleagues, the most striking possibility is that the conversation has crept from the corridors and into the classroom, and that may be a very rich thing indeed.

As we set our faces to an uncertain and hybrid educational future in September, the community of academics at the University of Bristol is proud of its efforts at online education, and excited at the fresh educational winds blowing in our direction.

It won’t be easy; it won’t be cheap; but our online education won’t be a paltry imitation of old and tired genres like the lecture. And we are saving the best kinds of interaction which enable students to learn the most, for on campus teaching in small groups and in laboratories, on a scale that Covid-19 will allow, and in ways that our scientific invention might enable.

Black Lives Matter

The reality of racism was brought into sharp and disturbing focus last week as we saw how for some people Black lives simply do not matter. Sadly, the death of George Floyd in the United States is not a one-off occurrence and Black communities across the globe face racism, violence, and discrimination on an everyday basis.

We stand in solidarity with our Black staff and students against all forms of racism and social injustice.  At times like these, it is all too easy to look to people of colour to educate those around them, adding to the pressure and trauma that many are already experiencing during this time.

We recognise that it is not the responsibility of our Black colleagues and students to convince us why we need to tackle societal, structural, and institutional racism. It is the responsibility of us all to eradicate racism. We will continue to challenge this through our research, our education, and our civic engagements.  Our University with its critical role in education and shaping social policy, must be at the forefront of the continuing struggle against prejudice and inequity based on race.

We recognise that, as a University, we still have our own issues, and we are working hard to address these. Many of our Black students and staff feel isolation and discomfort as they experience daily microaggressions across campus.  We encourage students and staff to report any incident of racial harassment and seek support from us.  There is no place for racism at our University.

As the global coronavirus pandemic continues, we are also aware of evidence that Black people, as well as Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people, are at disproportionately higher risk of illness, death, and bereavement.  We are conscious that this places additional stress and burden on our community. We offer wellbeing and mental health support to all our staff and students including those affected by racism:

To find out more about our activities to support our institutional commitment to race equality please see our Institutional Statement on Race Equality

International Women’s Day Celebration of BAME Women

This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrations at the University have been bigger and better than ever. I’m incredibly grateful to staff and students who’ve shared their personal experiences at IWD events across campus this week – your stories have been an inspiration to us all.

Attendees at the International Women’s Day celebration of BAME women in Royal Fort House

As a University, we’ve been working hard to improve gender equality. The University Strategy sets out an ambitious commitment to eradicate the gender pay gap in the professoriate, and we also set a target of increasing the percentage of female professors to 33 per cent by 2023. Since announcing these commitments in 2016 we’ve made real progress, with new initiatives to support women’s career development and a new academic promotions framework. We are on track to meet our 2023 targets. Our latest organisational Gender Pay Gap has reduced by 2.5% since 2017 and I’m particularly proud that we are the first UK University to issue a landmark Collective Agreement outlining the next key actions which will be taken to address the academic gender pay gap. All of our work in this area has earned us a shortlisting for the Guardian University Awards in the Staff Experience category.

The senior team is determined to address all areas of inequality across our University and create a level playing field for everybody, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity or cultural background. Acknowledging there is a problem is an important first step. We must also listen to and learn from fellow colleagues.

It was my pleasure this week to host Professor Olivette Otele and Dr Jane Khawaja for an International Women’s Day celebration of BAME women in Royal Fort House.

Both Olivette and Jane shared candid accounts of their lives and career progression to date. At times deeply poignant, with grace and good humour both women talked of the highs and lows (including racism and other forms of prejudice) they’ve experienced as BAME women pursuing a career in academia.

The need for perseverance was a common theme for overcoming the challenges they faced, as was the importance of celebrating and reflecting on success. However, both women were clear they would not have achieved their success without the support of a close network of family, friends, colleagues and (crucially) mentors.

With this in mind, I would encourage eligible colleagues to sign-up to our Bristol Women’s Mentoring Network. Here, female staff at grades K, L and M can receive mentoring support, advice and guidance from female colleagues in senior roles. It’s been wonderful to see the network already making a real difference to the progression of our female staff and I was particularly pleased that Professor Esther Crawley won South West Public Sector Mentor of the Year for her participation in the scheme. I look forward to seeing it continue to develop.

While we are making progress to tackle gender and racial inequality at Bristol, as a leadership team we recognise there’s still a long way to go. That’s why we’re examining our recruitment practices, our institutional cultures and our reward and recognition systems. We’ll also shortly be publishing our first-ever ethnicity pay gap report alongside our statutory gender pay gap report. While this isn’t yet required by law, we believe it’s the right thing to do to and it will help us understand and address the challenge head-on.

I’m confident that together we can bring an end to both gender and racial inequality at Bristol and I hope this year’s IWD provided an opportunity to both reflect on and celebrate all the incredible women in our university community – it certainly has for me.