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Message from the Vice-Chancellor: 1 July 2024

1 July 2024

It has nearly been eight months since the start of the Israel-Gaza conflict. My team and I recognise the deep distress that many members of our community are experiencing as a result of these tragic events. I am writing to update you on what has been happening since I last wrote to you.

Firstly and importantly, we are taking positive steps. We have been able to ensure that all those students who have been personally affected have received special consideration in terms of exceptional circumstances. Our Sanctuary Scholarship programme for students from asylum-seeking and refugee communities, including those from conflict zones, is available for Palestinian students, and we support the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) who are working on plans to sponsor Palestinian academics.

In addition, we have been and remain committed to securing freedom of speech within the law for our whole community, including for those occupying the encampment opposite Senate House.  They have been assured that the University will treat them with courtesy, dignity and respect. We expect the same in return. Unfortunately, however, in recent weeks we have seen actions on campus that fall far short of the University’s behavioural expectations.

Some individuals linked to the encampment have gone beyond what is an acceptable expression of their views. The behaviour of some has become aggressive, abusive, and has involved allegations of physical assault and damage to property. This has raised significant concerns over the safety of our community and our visitors, and has interfered with core University business. This is unacceptable. The right to protest is not without limits and must be balanced with the rights of our wider University community to feel safe on our campuses. 

As a result of the cumulative impact of these actions, we have now taken legal action to disperse the encampment, which has become a focal point for some of these behaviours; including, we believe, from people outside of our University community. This is an action that has already been taken by many of our peer institutions across the UK.

Where we have clear evidence that individuals have engaged in unacceptable behaviour we will continue to engage our disciplinary processes. We have not brought disciplinary action in respect of presence at the encampment, where protest activity has been peaceful, lawful and in line with our agreed protocols.

Everyone has the right to protest, but everyone also has the right to go to study, work or visit us knowing that their safety and wellbeing will be our highest priority. I will always meet with student and staff groups who are concerned about issues in order to enter into dialogue such as the one we recently held at Senate. I met with the students occupying my office in the Spring once they had ended their occupation and will do so again with those at the encampment, once they have left. I have had many conversations throughout the past year with staff and student groups, and understand the deeply held concerns of many in our community.

We have received numerous petitions to break off our relationships with external organisations and institutions, particularly those operating in the defence sector. My role as Vice-Chancellor is not to decide the type of research that Bristol academics undertake nor with whom, but to ensure that it is undertaken safely, is lawful and meets regulatory standards.

This critical and central  principle of academic freedom is enshrined in our University Charter. This means that we do not limit what our academic staff work on, how they work on it, and with whom they work, as long as it is legal and falls within agreed regulation and guidelines, such as those expected by the Home Office (for example, for our research work using animals) or in terms of National Security (for the international partnerships and funding that we have to report on). 

In June, we held our last University Senate meeting of the academic year. This included a substantial discussion about University partnerships and how we make decisions about who we work with. During the discussion, we heard from colleagues and student representatives with a range of views on the issues raised, with arguments both for divestment from defence companies and for the freedom to work with key partners in industries that are important to researchers. It was an important conversation, and I was grateful for the quality of the debate and Senate’s commitment to ensuring a respectful and civil discussion.    

It was clear from what we heard that we could do more to explain our existing processes in this area. We have published information on this, which we will continue to update. We recognise the need to improve visibility over whom we partner with and why and will look to pursue this conversation, seeking further feedback on how we design our processes for partnership. The full minutes from the meeting and a specific paper on the defence partnership discussion itself are available on our website. 

Of course, while Senate provided a respectful and structured forum for inclusive debate, we continue to support everyone’s right to express themselves freely and engage in lawful, peaceful protest in line with our agreed protocols. These principles apply, even when there are very different and divergent views. Guidance is available to assist you in exercising your right to protest in accordance with University policies and includes expectations of behaviour.

I am proud that every day at Bristol, colleagues, students and visitors hold vigorous debates about society, politics, religion, race, gender, sexuality, climate change (to name only a few). We are an exciting place to engage with ideas precisely because we don’t all agree. We are here to learn and to gain understanding as well as to express our views. This is far more likely to happen if we all act with empathy in our interactions, no matter how passionately we feel about a particular issue, or the strength of our convictions.

Thank you for the role you play in helping maintain respectful debate and open dialogue across our University community.

Professor Evelyn Welch 

Vice-Chancellor and President 


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