In 2021, I circulated an email to all the Residents Associations in areas close to the University of Bristol that I’d come to know through my work on the Noise Pages.
Were they interested in a joint approach to the university to seek the creation of some kind of residents’ forum, to replace the Community Liaison Group it had abruptly closed down in 2019? It turned out they were.
After some to and fro, seven associations backed I letter I drafted on the group’s behalf. The university replied that it was planning to revive the Bristol Student Community Partnership, a body that had briefly existed some years earlier, and would be happy to offer the “group of seven” two seats at BSCP meetings. We accepted.
Our agreement was not without misgivings. “Partnership” was a grand-sounding concept. Most of us could see that the new body was potentially a way for the university to earn much kudos and PR benefit, possibly without giving away much in return. But, we had wanted a new forum, and this was the offer. So far as possible, we would make the best of it and hope that it produced something useful.
We debated how best to allocate our two seats: two permanent representatives, different people each time, a combination of the two? In practice, a key feature of the new body helped make the decision for us. The BSCP met during the day, not in the evenings, as the CLG had done. The daytime meetings, which suited the UoB and other attendees, were a problem for some RA members.
Being retired and free of other commitments, I was always a volunteer, but on several occasions it was a push to get a second person—though we always did so in the end. In practice, over two years and 10 meetings, I became the anchor, which provided continuity from meeting to meeting, and we focused on rotating the second seat among as many different people as we could.
At the January 2023 meeting, attended by new-Vice Chancellor Evelyn Welch, UoB relaxed the two-seat rule and as many as 10 representatives attended the meeting (the original seven groups having now expanded to 12).
But what has been achieved over the past two years? In truth, not very much. There has been a lot of talk, some of it duplicating things said—or which could just as easily have been said—in other settings. The university’s community liaison team has done some things, but many of these would have been done anyway. They were mostly not products of the BSCP, as such.
In our efforts to be constructive, we pushed a number of ideas:
Calls for a “Respect” programme. We said that although UoB’s enforcement of its disciplinary rules was important, the ultimate solution was to persuade and educate students to respect their neighbours. We wanted this effort to be deeply embedded in the university’s dealings with students, even from the moment they first began considering Bristol as a place to study. We knew the university already put out some relevant information, but we needed to find ways to ensure it reached as close to 100% of its target audience as possible. In response, the university detailed its efforts and provided occasional updates, but there has been no evidence of the kind of “game-changing” initiatives we had called for. Verdict: Fail.
During the Respect discussion, we learned there was an existing mechanism that already reached all students. Every year, they must sign a Student Agreement that represents their contract with the university and covers a multitude of issues. By signing, students consent to abide by community-conduct rules and accept university discipline—except, does the average 19-year-old, flicking through the pages, understand the fine print they’ve signed up to? (No, judging by how many students claim they’ve “never been told” the rules.) We suggested using layout and typography to make those issues unmissable and ensure students really do know the rules. Despite repeated discussion, nothing has been done. Verdict: Fail.
Proposals to bring landlords and agents (L/As) into the conversation about student issues. We urged that L/As should be invited to join the BSCP. We also proposed that UoB should set up a web page addressed to landlords, and promote it via the council’s private-housing newsletter. Two landlords have joined the BSCP, and UoB did set up a web page (xxxx). The community liaison officer had meanwhile begun dealing with landlords and agents directly when there were problems at a student property. So, one way or another, there was some progress. Verdict: Partial Success.
When we learned (belatedly) that UoB was planning a Civic University Agreement (CUA) with UWE, the city council and others, we pooled ideas into a multi-page document of proposals for consideration. Not very long afterwards, the CUA was signed, as a short confection of fine-sounding principles that will be easy to stretch, one way or another, to accommodate whatever the university decides it wants to do. On present indications, it seems unlikely that anything of practical benefit will emerge from this. Verdict: Who knows?
The most depressing development, however, has arguably been the university’s recent decisions to bring in new complaints-handling procedures, and to remove waste from its community rulebook. The new procedures are not in themselves objectionable, though there are devils in the detail. On the other hand, waste, if it is truly to be dropped, is certainly a fundamental concern. The most galling aspect, though, is that on matters that UoB knew were of acute concern to residents’ groups—its supposed “partners” in the BSCP—the university made unilateral decisions (as it did when it junked the Community Liaison Group) and then is apparently surprised at the reaction.
And so we come full circle. Our first instincts were right (sadly): The “Partnership” is basically a PR vehicle and UoB has not changed its spots. When it comes to “community cohesion” (one of the university’s favourite phrases), it is not really trying to solve problems—just going through the motions of doing so, with a layer of modern management-speak to ice the cake.
Which is a problem. Because given the increasing size of the university and its growing footprint in the city, there is a clear need for a body that brings together UoB and UWE, the city council and other public agencies—and, yes, community groups—to discuss a range of issues. The BSCP on the face of it does all this. Representatives of several council departments attend meetings, as do councillors, the police and Bristol Waste.
The fundamental flaw of the current set-up, however, is that University of Bristol is in the driving seat and, to mix metaphors, is marking its own homework. The BSCP is essentially led by UoB’s community liaison officer and therefore has become in effect an extension of his office. The recent addition of a local councillor as co-chair has not resolved the obvious lack of independence in how the BSCP operates. Other players have become increasingly marginal: UWE attends but nowadays rarely contributes, and UoB’s Student Union—the “S” in BSCP—is peripheral at best. (I urged efforts to bring students into a more central role, but there has been no sign of that happening.)
One can only hope that as Bristol City Council undergoes its scheduled transformation next year, when the executive mayoralty ends and rule by councillors returns (in theory), someone will look at the BSCP and decide to reverse its polarity: That is, create a body that is run by the council, to the same standards of transparency as council committees, with UoB et al as attendees. Perhaps then we would get an appropriate level of accountability, and possibly some progress and consistency.