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Parting notes (Nonesuch spring 2015)

Nick Smith

Sir Eric welcomes the President of the Republic of Singapore to the University in October 2014 Bhagesh Sachania

15 May 2015

After 14 years as Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Eric Thomas (Hon LLD 2004) will step down in August. Here, he reflects on his time in office.

I find it difficult to believe that it is more than 14 years since I was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Bristol. Never has the opening line of LP Hartley's The Go- Between – 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there' – seemed so apt. I recently re-read the vision for the University that we developed in my first year and was reassured that we would agree with much of it today: our mission hasn't changed, even though the University undoubtedly has.

I was both delighted and a little humbled to come to a university which was already firmly established in the top echelon in the UK. The first thing my predecessor, Sir John Kingman (Vice-Chancellor, 1985-2001), said to me after my appointment was: 'I hope you realise you've just got the best job in British higher education.' He may have been biased, but he was also very close to the truth. It is the best job because it combines the stimulation and challenge of being Vice- Chancellor of one of the world’s leading universities with working in one of the UK's most invigorating and entertaining cities – all at a point in history when universities are as important as they've ever been.

Central to Bristol's story has always been the pursuit of intellectual excellence: I have felt that ambition strongly every day. Our academics account for Bristol's position as a world leader in subjects as diverse as aerospace and policy studies. They continue to generate new knowledge – knowledge that both improves the world and illuminates our understanding of it – and our superb results in the Research Excellence Framework 2014 both reflect our current prowess and bode well for our future position as a global, research-intensive institution.

Eleven days after I arrived in Bristol, the World Trade Centre was destroyed. I think of it as the day we all understood what globalisation actually meant. In the 1990s, globalisation was only a small part of daily discourse. After 9/11, it was the new reality.

Bristol began to analyse its place in the world. We joined the Worldwide Universities Network, which now includes 16 universities across six continents, and forged new relationships with other top institutions, like the University of Kyoto.

Our campus is already much more international than when I first arrived: there are now more than 4,000 overseas students studying at Bristol. They bring fresh and diverse perspectives to the intellectual and cultural life of both the University and the city.

I am fiercely proud of all of our students. They make the university: they are its beating heart, and their values, talent and ambition are mesmerising. Since 2001, the number of undergraduates at Bristol has grown by more than 50 per cent, though our academic quality has not dropped.

From autumn 2015, there won't be a cap on student numbers. Competition among universities will become increasingly fierce, and Bristol won't be immune. Nothing beats high-quality educational provision, or an outstanding peer group, but we still have to portray the Bristol student experience in the best way possible, both in the UK and further afield.

The introduction of tuition fees (£3,000 in 2004 rising to £9,000 in 2012) has certainly created a relationship that is both more personal and more transactional. On the one hand, our students have made it plain that they do not want to be seen as customers: they want to be treated as colleagues. On the other, they are now empowered to lobby us about the quality of the facilities: their learning spaces, their sports amenities and their IT support.

In 2008, the global financial crisis, and its effect on the UK economy, lent different mood music to our plans: there is a natural tendency to be more conservative in times of uncertainty. We decided that was not the way at Bristol, and continued to invest. That risk has paid off.

In today's money, we have invested around £1 billion in the University's estate since 1993. We now have the Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information, known to be one of the 'quietest' buildings in the world. And in September, Sir David Attenborough (Hon LLD 1977) opened our new Life Sciences Building. Some of our oldest buildings now stand beside stunning new structures on Tyndall Avenue.

Last year, Bristol was named the best UK city to live in by The Sunday Times, and it is definitely celebrating its unusual characteristics in a very positive way. It has moved from being a mercantile city, through an industrial phase, to become a modern knowledge city, an ideas city, and this year, a green city.

Sir John was right: to be part of a university renowned for its academic excellence in such a dynamic city is an exhilarating mix, and surely one of the reasons why Bristol produces such fantastic graduates year after year.

You are some of the best ambassadors our University has. You are intellectually challenging, creative, and entrepreneurial in every sense, and I have truly enjoyed meeting so many of you over the years. Your advice, your networks and your continued promotion of our excellence are hugely important, and I am keen for you to see yourselves as part of Bristol’s future, not just its past.

How would I like to be remembered? For me, the best reward would be for a future Vice-Chancellor to say that the University’s leaders in the early 21st century really seized the opportunities available and that Bristol is still reaping the benefits.

It certainly has been a breathtaking 14 years. From September, I shall look on Bristol from afar with admiration, deep affection and many great memories. And I will regularly remind myself that life conspired to give me the great fortune and privilege to lead this outstanding University for a brief part of its great history. From my wife, Narell, and me, thank you all.

In your words

‘What a breath of fresh air in the serried ranks of vice-chancellors. Forthright, unstuffy and a stalwart supporter of state education to boot. Sir Eric has provided wise guiding counsel to Bristol, to Universities UK and to education more widely still.’ Dame Jane Roberts DBE (MB ChB 1980)

‘Sir Eric has been an outstanding leader, communicator and advocate of both Bristol and the UK university sector. He combines sharp intellect, deep thinking and great common sense. He articulates his thoughts with great clarity and simplicity, and his delivery has great personal charm, warmth and modesty. Sir Eric will be sorely missed by Bristol.’ Neill Morgan (BA 1990)

‘Hearing Professor Sir Eric Thomas talk to alumni in Kuala Lumpur in January was an enriching experience. As an international student, I always found everyone at Bristol to be encouraging and supportive.’ Kent Khor (BSc 2014)

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