Updated: Apr 9
Professor Evelyn Welch, University of Bristol’s new vice-chancellor, is to meet residents’ associations in March as part of efforts to improve links with the community.
This will be the latest of several such steps Prof. Welch has taken since she took the reins at UoB over six months ago, replacing Prof. Hugh Brady.
In January, she attended a meeting of the Bristol Student Community Partnership, which brings together university, council and residents’ representatives. The meeting heard a presentation from Prof. Welch and others about a proposed Civic University Agreement to promote joint initiatives by UoB, the University of the West of England, City of Bristol College and Bristol City Council.
Prior to that, in November, Prof. Welch gave an interview to the online news magazine B24/7 in which she encouraged people to tell her what they want from the university. In a key passage, she was quoted as saying:
“… the most important thing I can do in my first six months here is go out and listen to community groups, listen to civic groups, listen to everything Bristol has to offer … and really hear from people who live in Bristol what they would like the university to do for them…”
The full interview is available here: https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/features/evelyn-welch-got-love-for-bristol/
Community out-reach is a key part of the “civic university” approach. UoB and UWE are among 30 or so universities around the country that have signed up to the initiative, which aims to reinforce the institutions’ sense of place and push projects that would benefit their town, city or region. These could range from research tie-ups to measures aimed at boosting the local economy, employment, adult learning, or community health.
The agreements aim to reinforce links between universities and other “anchor institutions” they partner with. These can include local authorities, other higher-education bodies, employers’ organisations and NHS hospitals. Some CUAs take a regional approach while others, like the one proposed for Bristol, focus at city level.
The CUA initiative has its own website: https://civicuniversitynetwork.co.uk/civic-agreements/
Here in Bristol, residents’ groups have already responded to these developments.
In the wake of Prof. Welch’s B24/7 invitation, eight residents’ associations wrote individually to the vice-chancellor calling for greater efforts by the university to deal with noise, waste and other problems in areas that have high student populations.
These concerns were also aired during the January BSCP meeting that Prof. Welch attended. One group representative said the impacts of UoB’s expansion in his area had been “pretty universally negative” for long-term residents.
The meeting concluded with an invitation to community groups to put forward ideas that might be incorporated into the planned Civic University Agreement, including projects to strengthen relations between students and their neighbours.
A group of 12 community organisations that contribute to BSCP discussions is now discussing possible submissions. (I facilitate email discussions within this group: See the disclosure statement at the end of this article.)
These and other groups have been invited to send representatives to the meetings Prof. Welch plans to hold in March. While the meetings are not open to the general public—attendance is by invitation from the university—the groups who have indicated they will be present represent a broad swathe of the community across Redland, Cotham, Clifton Down and Clifton village.
Comment: Prof. Welch’s efforts to seek out local views represent a welcome boost to community engagement between UoB and long-term residents of areas close to the university that are popular with students “living out”—second-years and above who are not in halls. The impact of students, whose lifestyles are often very different to those of their neighbours, has long been a source of tension, especially in areas where student populations are highest. These topics, and how to respond to them, tend to dominate discussions at the quarterly BSCP meetings, of which I am part (see disclosure below).
Residents’ groups believe these issues should be acknowledged within the Civic University Agreement, which will act as a high-level “framework” for discussions between the universities and the city. In my own remarks to the January meeting, I said the BSCP had already shown the benefits of partnership working on a small scale, and that carrying this forward into a high-level framework would potentially reinforce the BSCP and enable conversations that might otherwise not happen.
However, better integrating students with the rest of the community—with the hoped-for benefit of reducing noise and other problems—won’t be easy. As another group representative noted, efforts to involve students in local projects often fall flat. “Much of the time we feel like we’re living in parallel worlds.” Overcoming those obstacles is likely to require creative thinking, sustained effort and (yes) money. If you have any suggestions you’d like to make, please write to me (Andrew Waller) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclosure: As indicated, I’m directly involved in several aspects of the events reported above. I facilitate an email conversation among 12 residents’ groups who normally send two representatives to BSCP meetings. I have been one of the representatives at all the meetings since the BSCP was set up by UoB in June 2021; the other seat has been filled on rotation by a group member. (At the January meeting, in light of the subject matter, all groups were invited to field a representative, and nine did so.) I am currently consulting all the groups on a possible collective submission to the proposed Civic University Agreement. (It’s possible some groups might submit their own.)
The 12 groups are: Chandos Neighbourhood Association, Redland & Cotham Amenities Society, Highbury Residents Association, High Kingsdown Community Association, Richmond Area Residents Association, Grange & Mortimer Roads Residents Association, Clifton Down Community Association, Oakfield Residents Association, Clifton & Hotwells Improvement Society, BCR Street Scene Group, Cotham Vale & Trelawney Road group, and Richmond Terrace Residents Association.