Today is a significant day for me, personally. Three years ago today, on 8 April 2019, I re-joined the University of Bath as Vice-Chancellor.
Little could I have imagined then the shape of the next three years. There has been significant political change, in the UK most notably through Brexit and its impacts. We have had to navigate the global Covid-19 pandemic for two out of those three years, and the damaging, and sometimes tragic, consequences for individuals, families and organisations – and indeed society and the economy more broadly. And now of course, we are seeing the harrowing reality of war in Europe and the suffering it has brought to so many in Ukraine and beyond. These seismic events have profoundly affected many, and our University community has been impacted by them all.
The Higher Education sector has experienced additional challenge and change through ongoing industrial relations tensions, most notably on the USS pension scheme; increasing oversight of the sector and new policies, including post-18 education funding post-Augar and the Levelling Up agenda; and an increasingly challenging financial landscape both for our University and individual members of our community.
It was not the three years any of us had expected.
However, I have been both humbled and inspired by the way in which our community has pulled together to navigate these challenges. Particular credit goes to those including Nicky Kemp and her colleagues, who have been leading business continuity measures that have been tested to the full, as have our financial controls which Martin Williams has overseen. Our collective actions have resulted in the University successfully ensuring that its activities, both in-person and online, have been highly effective. So many of you assisted us in navigating the pandemic, and I must thank Jane Loveys, Mike Porter, Chris Young, Anthony Payne and Stephen Baddeley and their teams for all they have done to help keep us as safe as possible. The public recognition for members of our community through awards and medals, alongside the personal stories of ‘behind-the-scenes’ care and kindness, have demonstrated the remarkable success of the University in such difficult times.
It is a huge credit to the University community that we have not simply been reactive to events, and I am deeply proud of the individual and collective achievements made in spite of these challenges. One of the first initiatives I instigated on joining the University was a listening exercise where we engaged with staff, students and our alumni community. We had really honest conversations about our challenges as well as our strengths, and the ambitions we had for the future direction of the University. Out of this engagement, our University Strategy was born, with its four pillars around:
- Fostering an outstanding and inclusive University community
- Driving excellence in education
- Driving high-impact research
- Enhancing strategic partnerships
Outstanding and inclusive community
On the first of those pillars, we heard clearly that colleagues and our students hold dear the spirit of community here at Bath. But we also heard there was work to do in building an inclusive community of respect and two-way engagement.
In response, we have:
- Introduced new equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives including creating the role of Vice-President (Culture & Inclusion), held by Professor Rajani Naidoo
- Established the Race Equality taskforce and focussed on action to promote gender equality among students and staff; led by Dr Marion Harney we achieved an institutional Athena Swan Silver Award at the end of last year
- Sought to enhance support within the student community in respect of accommodation and hospitality services, such as through the nationally recognised student ambassador scheme
- Under the leadership of Corinne Evans, reinvigorated our internal communications, with a more open approach to communicating, including virtual Town Halls and ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions; we launched the ‘Belong at Bath’ initiative and sought to improve our engagement on our social and digital channels with staff and students, which was particularly important during periods of lockdown, its success receiving national recognition
- On HR matters, under the leadership of Richard Brooks, established regular staff surveys that are shorter but more frequent, so we can listen more consistently and respond more swiftly to emerging issues. The most recent has highlighted the areas of hybrid working, reward, workload and facilities, all areas to which we are currently giving considerable thought
- Established a Staff Experience Board to progress policies and initiatives that are important to colleagues; we have also made progress on a more transparent and consistent approach to Professorial Pay and secondment opportunities, and we are developing new ways to support our leaders so that they can better support their colleagues
- Engaged in positive conversations with Trade Unions locally; it is a source of real regret that national agreement has not so far been reached on the issue of USS pensions, but I continue to be hopeful that proposed future negotiations can determine improvements for the scheme; here at Bath, we have reached local agreement on recent changes to the voluntary living wage and committed to making changes on anti-casualisation and pay gaps
- Made tangible changes to support our colleagues, such as the central funding of maternity cover
The role that Governance committees have played in our University community have been crucial in the past three years, and I pay particular tribute to Pam Chesters, Chair of Council for her leadership during these challenging times and for the expert work of Emily Commander, Head of Governance.
In terms of the Education pillar of our strategy, clearly the one of the main focus areas of the last two years of the pandemic has been working across the University to deliver learning and teaching as safely and effectively as possible.
I wholeheartedly commend our Deans, Faculty and School staff and teaching colleagues in particular for the truly superb work they have done, reflected most recently in Bath’s top position in the National Student Survey.
We have learnt much from this period, and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), Professor Julian Chaudhuri will be ensuring we don’t lose sight of this in our future approach. We recognise that Bath Education must continue to be distinctive in providing students with the range of educational activities that prepare them so well for their future careers; we will be completing curriculum transformation, which continues to be a significant endeavour for our teaching community. With Ian Blenkharn having recently joined us as Director for Education and Student Services, we will continue to identify opportunities for future innovation in education.
From our listening exercise, held before the latest NSS results, we heard the importance of maintaining and even improving the student experience here at Bath.
We acted in response, and have since:
- Created the post of Vice-President (Student Experience), held by Professor Cassie Wilson, this role later becoming Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience)
- Worked closely with our SU officers and colleagues on a range of initiatives, including SU-led Arts activities at The Edge
- Brought student-facing services together under the Director of Education & Student Services
- Launched new anti-harassment initiatives under ‘Be The Change’
- Created a new Student Policy and Safeguarding office
- Strengthened our approach to admissions
- Started developing plans to further enhance our sport-related activities across the University
- Started planning a series of new initiatives through the newly established Student Experience Board
It is pleasing that the hard work of our admissions, recruitment and marketing teams and the continuing commitment to educational advancement and enhancing student experience are bearing fruit. These new initiatives have been key in leading to overseas undergraduate applications this year being the second highest of all time. In addition, we received nearly 31,000 on time undergraduate student applications, an all-time high in the University’s history.
Our Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Sarah Hainsworth, will be working with our research community to build on what we have already achieved under the ‘research pillar’ of our University strategy.
We have serious ambitions to grow our research impact, which we have started to support through new initiatives, our three thematic areas, the new Institutes and the Bath Beacons established to date. I’ve been absolutely delighted with the many large grants in key areas awarded over the past few weeks, which will enable us to have even greater impact through our research. It is a great credit to our research community that despite the pandemic, research grant project applications are at the highest level in recent years. Of course, we recognise the level of challenge set in terms of research income targets. However, the level of grants already awarded this year is tracking ahead of our grants won in earlier years at a comparable point at £24.5m, which is a £7m increase from this time last year.
In terms of major innovation, we are excited by the significant potential of the Institute of Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS) and look forward to it fully opening later this year. I was also delighted to attend the opening of the Innovation Centre for Applied Sustainable Technologies (iCAST) in Swindon in November last year and look forward to seeing this initiative go from strength to strength.
I’m also very pleased that Sarah has been able to appoint Professor Julie Barnett as Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research), with particular responsibility for embedding principles of good research culture and enabling the growth of research governance activities. The role of Associate PVC is a new one, and I think an interesting area to explore in terms of nurturing existing talent within our community and providing opportunities for advancement, as well as helping deliver our strategic ambitions.
Of course, exploitation of research has seen a dramatic growth over the past three years, and I remain very grateful to Professor Jonathan Knight, appointed Vice-President (Enterprise) this year in recognition of the importance and dynamism of this activity. I look forward to a series of further innovations in our support of enterprise, and hope that the first Enterprise Day proves to be most successful.
Turning to our fourth pillar, strategic partnerships, despite the last two years of global pandemic, we have made pleasing progress in this area.
In terms of our Civic role, we have established and launched the Our Shared Future initiative. Through this, we’ve been working with Bath & North East Somerset Council and other organisations to seek ways of working together to help solve local challenges. Projects, of which there have been fifteen to date, have looked at how to reduce energy usage in buildings across the region and have explored using computer simulations and real-world data to aid local policymaking; it has been pleasing to see significant reports and publications being produced as a result. We are also exploring how we might implement a Civic University agreement.
Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Phil Allmendinger, will be seeking to further build local and regional relationships. Professor Allmendinger also manages the International Relations Office and will be working with Director Lily Rumsey, colleagues on the Internationalisation Board and others to progress our strategy in this area.
We have recently been joined by Gordon Cox as Director for Development and Alumni Relations, who has already developed the principles for a new strategy to grow philanthropy, and develop stronger relationships with donors and our wider alumni community.
Of course, underpinning these strategic pillars are cross-cutting initiatives which impact on a number of areas of University life. Our Chief Operating Officer, Keith Zimmerman, is recruiting new leadership for Estates and for our Digital, Data and Technology Department as well as looking at enhancing ways of working. Both of these areas are critical to modernising our infrastructure and innovating in teaching and research.
Keith also manages the Climate Action Team, which is making progress on implementing the Climate Action Framework, setting clear goals, including for emissions reduction. Also in this area, we have set up a Strategic Projects Office, which will help us to plan for, resource and co-ordinate, large programmes and projects that are needed to progress our strategic ambitions.
Looking ahead, given that we have grown in size and complexity, we are also reviewing how we can plan better together as a University, led by our academic ambitions and goals.
I hope this gives you a flavour of progress over the last three years. Of course, we haven’t got everything right, and we have learnt a great deal along the way. However, looking back over this time, I am exceptionally grateful for the collaborative spirit and the dedication to excellence that has enabled us to achieve so much in such challenging circumstances. Bath is a special place and I believe we are well placed to meet the opportunities and challenges ahead.
I pay tribute to you individually and collectively, for what you have achieved over the past three years, recognising that these have been difficult times and required significant levels of hard work. I hope that each of you is able to find joy in all that you have achieved. To those of you who are observing Ramadan, I wish you a peaceful and blessed month. For colleagues who will be celebrating Easter, I hope that this is a time of reflection and of hope. And for every member of our community, I hope the Semester break brings a time of real rest and happiness.
With warm best wishes,
Professor Ian White
Vice-Chancellor and President