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!

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. 

Our Annual Report and Financial Statements for 2020/21

We recently published our Annual Report and Financial Statements for 2020/21.

As always, this report goes much further than simply fulfilling the reporting requirements of the Office for Students, the Charity Commission and other bodies – it showcases the exceptional achievements of colleagues and students over the last academic year. These achievements are all the more impressive in light of the uniquely challenging circumstances that prevailed throughout 2020/21.

2020/21 highlights

Colleagues across our community worked tirelessly to implement large-scale measures and initiatives to help keep us all safe. We continued to deliver on our pledge to provide an education and student experience that enables all our students to thrive and achieve their full potential. While the pandemic necessitated an unprecedented emphasis on our digital education provision, we nevertheless maintained a focus on curriculum enhancement and continued our work to increase opportunities for students to develop valuable skills and experience.

Our community’s contribution to COVID-19 research has been outstanding, not just in biomedical disciplines but also in social sciences and the arts. We are equally proud of the research that our colleagues have conducted outside of the COVID sphere. This activity made a slow but sure recovery during the year, as further lockdowns and restrictions began to ease, and more colleagues were able to return to the facilities and interactions needed to resume their research.

Throughout the year, we forged significant new strategic international partnerships, consolidated our role as a key player in the South West economy, secured new funding for postgraduate research training, and continued to support innovation and entrepreneurship. Seven new University spinout companies were incorporated and, between them, our 81 active spinouts raised more than £628 million.

Elsewhere, we made continued progress on our gender and ethnicity pay gaps; work has begun on a four-year programme to modernise our critical IT infrastructure; we’ve made great progress in meeting net zero carbon target; and the refurbishment of Senate House is transforming the student experience, giving our students a new home of their own at the heart of our campus.

The Annual Report is full of more of your achievements – I encourage everyone to take a look!

2020/21 financial performance

The Report also sets out our financial performance for the last academic and financial year and provides a snapshot of our financial position on 31 July 2021. Overall, this position remains healthy and we achieved a surplus before other gains and losses of £66.1 million.

Every year, our operating income needs to be greater than our operating expenses so we can reinvest in the University’s long-term academic needs and research endeavour. The surplus generated in 2020/21 will help pay for important investments in new academic and Professional Services roles, the Digital Strategy, facility improvements and other key projects, such as a new community dental facility that will transform our dental education.

Several one-off developments contributed to the surplus, and these have been included in the table above. These include recognition of heritage assets gifted to the University of £7.4 million.

Income

Income from tuition fees and funding council grants increased notably since the original budget. We saw an 8% growth in total student population. As a result, tuition fee income totalled £349.8 million (£8 million higher than originally budgeted and an increase on our 2019/20 figure of £315.5 million). We are hugely appreciative of the efforts colleagues have made, and continue to make, in order to accommodate higher than planned undergraduate entrants. This follows two unprecedented recruitment cycles and the use of Teacher Assessed Grades by schools and colleges.

‘Research income’ was also higher than expected at £176.4 million, despite the reduction in UKRI Official Development Assistance (ODA) grants, and partly reflects the strength of new grant applications being made.

The University’s ‘Other income’ stream was most adversely impacted over the year, totalling £110.6 million (£19 million less than originally budgeted). This is principally due to the rent rebates and early tenancy releases we offered to students in university allocated halls, and our overall COVID-related support to students was among the most generous in the sector. Sports and catering income also came under pressure due to restrictions and lower footfall on campus.

Expenditure

The University’s staff costs and other operating expenditure for the year was £638.2 million – £12 million more than originally budgeted. We incurred significant additional costs in order to manage effectively the impact of COVID-19 on our learning and research. This includes COVID-related student support noted above, costs associated with delivery of blended learning, supporting early-career researchers, personal protective equipment and investment in our academic community, Professional Services and facilities, with additional posts approved to provide extra resource.

Of the £52.5-million contingency budget, £46 million related to significant uncertainty that existed over student numbers (particularly overseas students) and potential withdrawals. As noted above, this was not subsequently required as tuition fee income was higher than budgeted. The remaining contingency was released to offset the lower levels of residential income generated during the year owing to the exceptional rent rebates and early tenancy releases we gave to students in University-allocated accommodation.

Looking ahead

The future remains difficult to envision with any certainty. We are confident that prudent planning and the committed efforts of our colleagues will ensure that 2021/22 continues to show excellent results in our core activities of teaching and research.

The finalisation of the 2020 USS valuation in September will a significant impact on any surplus for 2021/22.  This is expected to worsen the surplus forecast by £200 million and take us into a deficit. However, this is an accounting adjustment to reflect the fact that more payments will be required in the future, rather than increased payments this financial year.

Excluding this adjustment, the surplus before capital grants is forecast to be £5.3 million this financial year. This has been supported by strong tuition fee income (through increased student numbers) which is forecast to be £10.9 million above budget. Increased pay and non-pay costs have been allocated to support the extra student numbers.

Your efforts, both as individuals and as a community, have helped us navigate another difficult year and emerge in good shape. There remains a great deal of ambiguity ahead. Our external environment continues to evolve, the policy landscape remains potentially volatile, and we still don’t know how the pandemic will ultimately unfold. There remains £17.5 million included within the current forecast for contingency, with ongoing uncertainty over the potential impact of any future COVID restrictions.

With work ongoing to review and revise our institutional Vision and Strategy, the input of colleagues across the University will help ensure we’re able to move forward together positively and achieve even more success over the coming decade.

If you have any questions on this update, or on any other matter, do please contact me at coo@bristol.ac.uk.

 

University finance update, June 2021

We are fast approaching our financial year-end on 31 July and working to close our accounts from 2020/21. Ahead of this, our budget for the 2021/22 academic year was recently approved by the Board of Trustees. This provides the resources needed to power our education and research over the coming year, support us to achieve our wider ambitions, and safeguard the University’s long-term academic mission and financial sustainability.

Budget: 2021/22
Our institutional response to Covid remains a prominent theme underpinning next year’s budget, with the potential of future waves still posing significant risk to both our income and expenditure. The impact is both direct (reduced income and increased costs) and indirect (significant pressure of public spending leading to funding cuts).

Our experience in 2020/21 is that c40% of combined budgeted income from supporting services (student accommodation, sports, catering and events) may not be achieved.  There are also some downside risks to some areas of student recruitment. Based on our operating experience and the continued expectation of income shortfall as a consequence of COVID-19, a contingency budget of £34m has been included to manage the ongoing pandemic.

Moving forward, we need to continue to balance effective financial stewardship of our University in the near term, with building capacity to fulfil our academic mission in the medium to long-term. This requires investment in our academic community, Professional Services and facilities. To support this, the budget provides for an additional 154 core funded academic roles and 73 Professional Services roles for 2021/22, compared to our current year resourcing levels.

The collective efforts of the whole University community has had a huge impact on how we are able to move forward positively into our next academic and financial year.

Looking back at our 2020/21 budget
The table below summarises the main movements in our forecast for this year compared to the budget we set ourselves. Overall, our financial position remains healthy.  We are forecasting a surplus before Capital Grants of £26.7m for this financial year. This surplus will help pay for our investment in new roles, the IT Digital Strategy, facility improvements and other projects such as a new community dental facility that will transform our dental education.

Income
Our forecast income from tuition fees and funding council grants has increased notably since our original budget. We have seen an 8% growth in total student population and withdrawals have not been significantly higher than previous years; as a result, this income is currently forecast to be £414.1m (£14.6m higher than originally budgeted).  We appreciate the substantial efforts that colleagues made to accommodate higher than planned undergraduate entrants than we had planned.  It was important to us to give young people the choice as to whether they wanted to commence study this year or defer due to the limited other options available to them.

‘Research indirect income’ is also higher at £46.7m, despite the recently announced reduction in UKRI Official Development Assistance (“ODA”) grants.  This reflects both the strength of new grant applications being made and some work that we could not undertake last year due to lockdown restrictions being deferred into the current year.

The University’s ‘other indirect income’ stream has been most adversely impacted over the last year, which is now forecast to total £112.9m (over £20m less than originally budgeted). This is principally due to the rent rebates and early tenancy releases that we have offered to students in University allocated halls.  We have considered it fair to offer substantial financial support to those in halls, which is amongst the most generous in the sector.  Students who have not wished to return to campus since early January have not had to pay any rent.

Sports and catering income has also come under pressure this year due to restrictions and lower footfall on campus.

Expenditure
The University expenditure is forecast to be £493.1m – £19m more than originally budgeted. There have been significant additional costs during 2021/22 to effectively manage the impact of COVID-19 on our learning and research. This spend relates to the support we have offered our students in halls, delivery of blended learning, personal protective equipment and additional resource to support cleaning and security activities. As we get closer to the end of the financial year, all areas have been assessing remaining budgets and likely timing of spend and revising forecasts accordingly.

As we have progressed through the year, our contingency budget has significantly reduced with £1m remaining. This reflects the level of residual risk we see for the current year and primarily relates to the recovery of student debt, which is running at higher levels than in previous years.

Planning for the future
This past year has not been without considerable challenges for our whole sector, but by taking early action and pausing non-essential spend and other commitments, we have so far been able to manage the uncertainty of the pandemic well and continue to be in good shape to invest in people and our strategic plans.

We are now reviewing our Vision and Strategy, ensuring we account for the dramatic changes in the external environment seen in recent years, and are well placed to build on progress since 2016. I encourage you to get involved in the review by joining the remaining live streams and sharing your thoughts and ideas via the strategy consultation form.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at coo@bristol.ac.uk

 

 

‘Bristol having ‘60,000 students so generous with their time? That is something to celebrate’

It was a long and cold winter, but that didn’t stop the student vets. Every fortnight they put on their biggest coats and headed into the city, handing out food parcels to homeless people with pets. They have been making sure no animal goes hungry for years – and neither cold weather nor a pandemic was going to stop them this time.

Students get a bad rap, but they make a huge contribution to our city, often in ways which go unnoticed.

They aren’t perfect (who is?) but having an extra 60,000 vibrant young adults in our city enriches it in a hundred ways, and we would be a poorer place without them.

Every day, thousands of students are doing their bit to help out. Not just through the hundreds of millions of pounds they contribute to our economy, but also with their vital voluntary work and the scientific breakthroughs that have far-reaching benefits for our city and beyond.

Many stay on, building businesses or working for our public services. Some go on to the stage or screen, to become scientists and politicians, renowned engineers and doctors – helping to export Bristol around the world.

The University of Bristol has nearly 29,500 students and UWE Bristol more than 30,000. Most of these eagerly spend their loans – hundreds of millions of pounds worth – on everything from local cafes to bus services.

In fact, a recent report found that spending by our students alone supported 4,540 jobs, and that’s not mentioning the 11,490 jobs the University of Bristol supports through its staff roster and spending with local companies. In total the university contributes £1bn a year to the region.

In 2014/15, the latest period for which figures are available, UWE Bristol supported 8,280 jobs in the region and contributed £400.1m to the local economy.

Meanwhile thousands of students volunteer in Bristol – and never have they been more needed than during the pandemic.

Over the past year more than 500 of our student medics have been working on the NHS frontline. From Abbi, a second year Bristolian determined to help out her home city, to final years like Luke, who gave up his summer to support NHS staff.

But it’s not just medics. A survey found that 30 per cent of our students volunteer in some capacity. Some help out with one of Bristol SU’s 15 student-led projects, others with hundreds of local organisations. Bristol students have been running food banks, sewing period pads for refugees, helping out in people’s gardens, putting in calls to the elderly, working with disability charities and much more.

It’s no different at UWE Bristol, where fashion students have been sewing PPE and delivering food packages worth £1,000 to local food banks.

And, of course, there are the student vets out every fortnight come rain or shine helping the homeless. Later this year they hope to set-up a free vaccination clinic for Bristol pet owners struggling to afford veterinary treatment.

Meanwhile, post-graduate students carry out world-beating research to Bristol. Marceli, a PhD student, has been embedded in a local ICU since the pandemic began, has been using technology to improve outcomes for patients.

Others develop new technology and then turn them into university spin-off companies.

Dr Harry Destecroix co-founded Ziylo while studying for a PhD at Bristol. The company developed new tech to help diabetes sufferers and was recently sold for hundreds of millions of pounds. He’s now the brains behind Science Creates Ventures, a Bristol-based venture capital firm which supports early-stage deep tech companies.

Some students never leave. Take Stephen Dunleavy who studied at Bristol and founded Humble Bee Films, which just produced the beautiful Attenborough’s Life in Colour series for the BBC.

Many, however, do, taking the good name of Bristol with them.

Every year thousands of international students graduate and head home as global ambassadors for Bristol. Others go on to great things: from actors like Simon Pegg and David Walliams, to the former head of MI5 Jonathan Evans and 13 Nobel laureates.

UWE Bristol’s Katie Alcott has helped more than 426,459 people in 617 communities reach safe water since she graduated and set up Frank Water.

Meanwhile, every year 1,400 fresh faced and eager nurses graduate from UWE Bristol. As with our final year medics, many of UWE Bristol’s third-year nurses and midwifery students chose to begin their NHS careers early when the pandemic struck.

Being a second home to nearly 60,000 students would be a huge benefit to any city, but having 60,000 talented, enterprising students so generous with their time? That is truly something to celebrate.

This article originally appeared in Bristol 24/7.

Our gender and ethnicity pay gaps: an update

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

This week we published our 2021 Gender Pay Gap and Ethnicity Pay Gap Reports. I’d like to highlight some of our progress, and to outline a few of the things that we are doing to build on our commitment to foster a diverse and inclusive community and eliminate the gender and ethnicity pay gaps.

Gender Pay Gap Report

We have seen a modest reduction in our mean organisational gender pay gap for the third year in a row to 18.3% in men’s favour. While this progress is welcome, we remain committed to reducing this further through a range of targeted actions including the continuation of the Women’s Mentoring Network to support academic and Professional Services communities, and the Academic Promotions Framework to reward and recognise the full range of contributions and achievements.

This year’s cohort of 42 new professors has increased the proportion of our female professors to 30.4%. Having exceeded our mid-term University Strategy target of 28% female professors last year by 1%, I’m pleased to report that modelling of our population data suggests we are on track to meet our target of 33% by 2023.

As a result of numerous local and central initiatives our female professor population has increased by 10.5% over five years. This reflects a much longer journey, undertaken by committed colleagues across the institution, to tackle inequalities in the academic career pipeline and to change our cultures and structures to better support women at all stages of their career.

For example, our Women’s Mentoring Network is currently supporting 78 new mid-career mentees from both academic and Professional Services communities; and the Female Leaders Initiative (FLi) supported 30 more women from across all career levels in both academic and Professional Services teams. I’d like to extend my thanks to everyone who has participated in these schemes: I’m delighted that engagement in these has been so strong. I’m confident that they will make a real difference to our institutional culture over time, and support the career development of our female colleagues in the immediate term.

Ethnicity Pay Gap Report

In line with our institutional commitment to anti-racism and as part of our wider commitment to improve the representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people across our workforce, we also monitor our ethnicity pay gap – that is, the difference in average pay between White and BAME staff.

In our second year of reporting this, ahead of it becoming a legal obligation, our ethnicity pay gaps have reduced to 2.9% median and 7.2% mean in favour of staff who disclose as White, compared to 5.7% median and 8.6% mean in 2019. We are also exploring the ‘intersectional’ pay gap between gender and ethnicity for the first time, and with future years’ data we will be able to improve our understanding of how this intersection contributes to gender inequality at our University and to develop targeted action.

Within the professoriate, and based on a 93.8% ethnicity disclosure rate, 8% disclose as being from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic background, and 92% identify as White. By gender these figures are 2.4% female and BAME, 5.6% male and BAME, 28.0% female and White, and 64.0% male and White. This confirms that we still have a lot of work to do to improve the BAME representation of staff at a senior level. In the coming year we will explore an appropriate target for BAME population in the professoriate, to complement our female population target in a review of our Strategic Performance Indicators. We look forward to making greater progress in this area.

Elsewhere at Bristol, we have been tackling BAME under-representation by revising our approach to apprenticeships. This includes developing a pipeline of talent from groups traditionally under-represented in professions such as finance, IT and human resources. Currently 75% of trainees across Professional Services are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background.

The under-representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic women at senior levels is an issue across the HE sector. To help address this we have launched the Elevate programme in 2021 – the first pilot of its kind – with 30 participants (eight academics and 22 Professional Services staff) across the GW4 universities.

There is much more we can – and will – do towards our goal of closing the gender and ethnicity gaps altogether. I look forward to working with colleagues across the University to continue this important work.

 

University finance update, March 2021

Welcome to this first quarterly University finance update to help you understand our financial performance, how we are doing against our budget and what that means for our financial health.

Financial overview

Over the last year, the University has implemented significant institutional change to the way we deliver on our education and research mission. This has included limiting spending to protect jobs and ensure the University remains on a sound financial footing at a time of great uncertainty. While this approach has been difficult, it has helped the University weather the storm better than many other institutions in our sector. It has also enabled us to do the right thing by our students, including providing an overall package of support for those in halls which totals over £8.3 million to the end of March 2021.

While I hope we’re now past the most significant period of disruption, it’s important that we keep an eye to the future and the possibility of further risks and uncertainties ahead. This means we must continue to be careful in how we make use of the University’s money and resources; plan for a range of scenarios; make a judgement as to the most likely course of events based on the best evidence available; and be flexible and willing to change course should that be required. This will help the University minimise risk, enable us to continue to honour existing commitments and maintain investment capacity to employ more people, enter into partnerships and make other investments that will accelerate our academic mission post-Covid.

How we are doing against our budget

There have been significant movements in the University income and expenditure compared to the original budget, which was signed off by the Board of Trustees in June 2020. A revised budget was finalised in November 2020, once the University had greater clarity over the impact of the pandemic. The forecast is the latest full year prediction as at the end of February 2021:

Income

Our income from tuition fees and funding council grants is forecast to be £15.1m higher than originally budgeted. Student numbers are 4% higher than anticipated, largely in Home Undergraduates where there has been a strong student intake. There have also been additional grants received from Funding Councils (Office for Students and Research England) to support Universities during the pandemic.

The University is also forecasting to exceed budget for Research indirect income, as we have managed to continue with the majority of our research activities during the recent lockdowns.

However, there is forecast to be a significant reduction in accommodation income of over £18m compared to the original budget due to rent rebates and lower occupancy levels during the pandemic. There have also been impacts on catering income (£3m) and sports income (£1m).

Expenditure

Although income levels are slightly reduced overall compared to the original budget, the University is forecasting to spend over £20m more on non-pay and pay costs to support essential activities. Across Faculties and Professional Services, additional posts have been approved since the budget was finalised to provide extra resources to support blended learning, as well as additional cleaning and security staff.

Also, in non-pay costs there has been additional spend to enable blended learning, providing safe transport to and from NHS settings, additional PPE and microscopes. Professional Services non-pay also includes forecast overspend in Education and Student Experience in response to COVID-19, additional cyber security costs, and overspend in Office for Fair Access due to increased undergraduate home students.

The original budget included £52.5m of contingency due to the high levels of uncertainty as to how the pandemic would impact this financial year. As we progress through the year and greater clarity is obtained, this has been reduced.  £5.5m remains in the forecast at the end of February as there is still uncertainty over the final impact of the pandemic. The recent government’s announcement on the roadmap and its impact on the finances will be factored into the forecasts in future months.

Surplus

Every year, our operating income needs to be greater than our operating expenses for that year. This enables us to generate cash to reinvest in the University’s long-term academic needs and research endeavour – including our infrastructure, equipment and IT – and to ensure we have sufficient facilities for the future. Based on changes we have seen and budgeted for, this leaves us with a deficit before Capital Grants of £-6.7m.

Now, more than ever, the University needs to be prepared for an uncertain future, given the lack of clarity on the full impact of COVID-19, future government policies and also potential changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme that is currently undergoing a new valuation that could increase the costs for all Universities going forward.

University income and expenditure analysis – year ending July 2021

Pensions update

As recently shared with colleagues, the latest USS valuation report sets out the USS Trustee’s assessment of the financial position of the scheme and suggests various pricing scenarios to maintain the existing benefit structure going forward. If ratified over the coming months, these new pricing scenarios could significantly impact member and employer contribution rates.  Some form of change to future pension benefits earned may also be required in response to significant cost increases, but we are working hard to ensure that any changes are as minimal as possible; ideally from our perspective there would be none. Based on the assumptions and methodology used by the USS Trustee in its Report, we will be challenging the size of the scheme deficit and the pricing suggestions both directly with the USS Trustees and through UUK on your behalf. Our Vice-Chancellor recently sent a letter expressing our disappointment at the approach adopted by USS, including their limited adoption of the Joint Expert Panel’s recommendations, to the USS Trustees.

The University will continue to be a vocal and active voice in the ongoing dialogue between the USS Trustee, Universities UK (UUK) and the group of 340 scheme employers about the current and future financial health of the USS scheme and its cost.  We will continue to work hard to lobby to protect the benefit structure and the financial stability of USS, knowing that it is fundamentally important for you to be able to plan financially for your future.

Following the Easter holidays, you will be invited to take part in a consultation on the USS Trustee’s Section 76.1 valuation report and the potential implications for members. We would urge as many of you as possible to input to our University’s response to UUK (who represent the 340 USS employers) and USS. You can read more on our pensions webpage.

In summary

The lead indicators for our institution such as research grant awards and student applications continue to look promising for the future. While we continue to navigate the risks and uncertainties associated with the pandemic, we need to proceed with care over the next few months. Protecting jobs will continue to be a key objective. As the government implements its recovery roadmap and normality (hopefully) begins to return, the University will be in a good place to continue investing in our academic endeavour, our Professional Services, and the future facilities we need to realise our institutional mission.

If you have any questions on the content of this update, or on any other matter, do please contact me at coo@bristol.ac.uk.

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.