In conversation with the vice-chancellor: Evelyn Welch on her second year at Bristol

‘Let’s work on the little things that make a difference to everybody’s day to day life’


Since the start of her tenure as vice-chancellor, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Evelyn Welch. From marking boycotts and strikes, to a bizarre confrontation with animal rights protesters in New York, the 54-year-old has endured as many crises in a year as some VCs may encounter in a lifetime.

Entering her second year in the position, the start of this academic year marked an opportune moment to sit down with Evelyn and reflect on her past year as vice-chancellor of Bristol Uni, how she has settled in, and her plans for the future.

To start, The Tab asked Evelyn about her proudest achievement of the past twelve months. She said: “I think the thing I’m most proud of is having reset the relationship with our students.

“We agreed at the beginning of this year a kind of contract between the student’s union and members of the senior team.” The VC claims this new system will focus on “academic experience, and around mental health and well-being.” This is unsurprising considering Bristol’s placement of 100th for student experience in the latest Times University Guide.

She admitted: “We have a real problem that I am determined to address. Where we let students down is in student voice. When students tell us something needs to change, have we actually done anything about it?”. The answer, as yet, is invariably a no, but Evelyn seems confident in her ability to affect gradual but positive change for students.

The vice-chancellor did, however, enjoy a great success this year as she led the university to an outstanding sixth place for research in the Times poll. When questioned if this data showed a chasm between an impressive educational core and student experience, Evelyn replied: “You’re absolutely right. Our research performance is outstanding. Our teaching performance in the classroom, as assessed by students both in our module evaluations and in the National Student Survey, is pretty good.”

“But our NSS results this year were no better than they’ve been in previous years. Minor, minor improvements, but absolutely not where I want to see them.”

The university was awarded silver for teaching by the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). In detail the organisation cited a need for improvement, something Welch is keen to deliver on: “Those who assessed us believed we would deliver real change in terms of assessment and feedback.

“We now have to deliver on that promise. And it’s only by working at every level, from the senior team to the faculty teams, to the school teams, to the programme teams, and with students that we can make that promise real.”

The difficulty in finding an academic-pastoral balance is something that Bristol Uni has previously struggled with; only last year the court ruled the uni guilty on grounds of discrimination in the death of Natasha Abrahart. Whilst Evelyn can’t comment on the past, she appeared very determined to improve mental health support at university:

“We have a mental health and wellbeing plan for which we received a national award and mental health charter award.

“And that’s about trying to work with staff and students to ensure that students never get to the point of absolute crisis. Now, there will always be a need for emergency intervention, and the university is not a hospital. But what we can do is take that whole university approach.

“Working with students to tackle issues around loneliness, to ensure that students have access to healthy food, exercise opportunities, and friendship because we do know that the best way to really prevent terrible things from happening is to is to work on that preventative, early-stage intervention.”

Some difficulties which have been encountered by students under Evelyn’s tenure stem from wider issues, namely the cost of living crisis and, most pertinently for Bristol, the renting crisis which saw students scrambling to secure houses outside of halls.

Evelyn called Bristol’s acute housing shortage a “complex problem”, explaining that she is “working closely with the city council on a number of things. Firstly, to ensure the housing available is licenced and that it’s good quality, and the student union’s letting agency works really hard with good quality landlords to make sure the housing that is available is fit for our staff and our students.”

A motion by the city councillors earlier this year proposed a rent cap to make housing more affordable for Bristol residents, however Welch acknowledged the difficulties in taking such an approach: “There’s a lot of complexity around this because sometimes putting in an intervention like that can actually reduce the amount of housing available as landlords decide that it’s not worth renting.

“There’s a really fine balance between increasing the supply of housing and also making sure the housing that is available is affordable and fit for purpose.”

Seemingly continuous national strikes have been another difficulty felt by students over the past few years. However, the industrial action planned to take place at the start of this academic year was called off. Evelyn explained that: “We were able to come to a local agreement whereby we said we would look at what’s called the pay spine and see how we could improve things locally for staff.

“We’ve also been able to resolve a long-standing pension issue, which really matters to staff, which will allow us to restore pension benefits and lower the cost for both the institution and for employees.”

In terms of the impact on students, she lamented: “I obviously wish we never had the dispute. And I’m desperately sorry that some of our students found themselves in a position of not being able to graduate on time next summer.

“All our students work has now been marked and we will have, what I hope will be, a joyous final graduation ceremony in late October.”

Although the face of the university, Evelyn, like many VCs, can seem a distant figure to students. This is something she wants to change: “I host a surgery for anyone who wants to tell me something. It doesn’t have to be a problem, just introducing themselves, or something they’re really proud of they would like me to include in the stories I tell about the university.”

Students and staff can request an appointment with the VC by emailing [email protected].

With the boiling cauldron of industrial action and penniless students tempering to a simmer, Welch appeared confident about her future as VC. She outlined that she wants to “make a difference in everybody’s day-to-day life. Whether it’s buses that go all the way to Coombe Dingle. Whether is getting an app in place that allows you to identify where there are free study spaces.

“We’re doing some amazing big things. But I do know that for staff and for students, it’s often the really small things that make a difference every day. So I’m hoping we can use this period of relative calm and stability to focus on doing the little things that matter.”

The ongoing academic year will reveal whether Evelyn Welch can deliver on her promises to students and confirm Bristol’s reputation as a remarkable institution.

Featured image credit University of Bristol

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