Umbrellas over graduation celebration

Professor Nick Braisby reflects on the inequalities exposed by the pandemic and how BNU always strives to meet its social responsibilities

Professor Nick Braisby praised BNU’s 2020 graduates last week for their resilience in completing their studies and supporting one another during the pandemic. Drawing on his address to our graduates, here he talks about how it has shone a light on our society, exposing deep inequalities, and how the University has continued to thrive in the most difficult of circumstances.


While the world has been gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, our students continued to study and our staff continued to work hard to deliver excellent education under challenging circumstances. For our healthcare and nursing students and staff that often meant being on the frontline in the NHS or in social care settings.

The pandemic often revealed the human spirit at its best. Throughout, the University has always sought to do the right thing, ensuring we fully support our students, our staff, and our communities.  With ingenuity, determination, and hard work, we all found new ways of doing things and supporting those around us.

The pandemic has meant that many of us have experienced personal losses, and we will bear the memories of the coronavirus years for a long time to come. But the pandemic has also shone a light on our society, and exposed deep inequalities. And these inequalities challenge us. Perhaps they are the defining challenge of our time.

Annie Rogers was born in 1856. At the age of 23, she obtained first class marks in her Oxford examinations in Latin and Greek, and in Ancient History. BNU’s class of 2020 had to wait a year for their ceremony, and that must have felt like a long, long time! But in 1879 the University of Oxford did not admit women as full members of the university. In fact, it was not until 1920 that Oxford granted women the right to take degrees. And so, it was only after a wait of 41 years that Annie was finally awarded her degree.

Annie graduated because of the introduction in 1919 of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. And her story reminds us of how women and men have risen to the challenge of tackling sex discrimination.

And it has been a long struggle. 100 years earlier Florence Nightingale was born. It is fitting of course that in the year of the pandemic we celebrated the 200th anniversary of her birth; leading the World Health Organization to designate 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

The Lady with the Lamp is credited with founding the modern nursing profession, including the Nightingale Training School, now part of King’s College, London; and she also campaigned here in Buckinghamshire for the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital in Aylesbury. But Florence was also a social reformer and a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. She is described as believing that “women's enfranchisement is absolutely essential to a nation if moral and social progress is to be made”.

The pandemic has exposed other pernicious inequalities in our society and reminds us of the struggles that people have made to address them. The impact of COVID on the LGBTQ+ community for instance reminds us that it was only in 1970, that the Gay Liberation Front was formed. Meeting in a basement of the London School of Economics, the group’s manifesto was simply to “stand firm and assert our basic rights”.

In 2020, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee launched its inquiry into the differential impact of coronavirus, including on people from BAME backgrounds. Their report reminds us of the continuing worldwide struggle to combat racism. It was in 1865 that the 13th amendment to the United States constitution was ratified, effectively abolishing slavery in that country, and freeing people such as Hillery Thomas Stewart Sr. who spent the first eight years of his life enslaved in North Carolina, working tobacco fields. Yet, despite much progress, racism continues in one form or another today. It was as recent as 1955 that Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, simply for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. And in 2020, tragically, Hillery Thomas Stewart Sr.’s great-great grandson was brutally murdered, triggering protests across the United States and the world.  His name was George Floyd.

We will never stop racism if we deny it exists. Racism does exist, in all parts of our society, and if we are to build a better world, we all have an obligation to confront it, to challenge it, and to eliminate it.

The struggles of Annie Rogers, Florence Nightingale, Rosa Parks, George Floyd and others, defined them and the times in which they lived, just as our own struggles will come to define us and our times.

Some of the challenges we face are daunting. They include the challenge of an increasingly ageing society and the need for greater levels of health and social care. We see rising intolerance, increasing prejudice and discrimination. Inequalities across the globe seem to be increasing, not reducing, and we are experiencing the damaging effects of a global climate that is changing because of human activity. We see attacks on the liberal values of diversity and equality that underpin the very ethos of this University. And the recent events in Afghanistan remind us of the awful plight of those living under repressive regimes and, of course, of the experience of our armed service personnel who bravely make sacrifices, sometimes ultimate, in order to protect our values.

These are just some of the challenges our society will face and, as those who have gone before, we all face a choice of how to respond. One thing is sure: our graduates can be confident they have the knowledge, skills and understanding, as well as tenacity and determination, to rise to these challenges and defend the values that have enabled them to succeed.

Now in 2019-20 the University successfully rose to some of its challenges, thriving under difficult circumstances, and we celebrated many successes on which we have continued to build.

BNU researchers played a leading role in two major projects, one being the largest scientific survey on violent youth radicalisation in Europe, and the other exploring the experience of EU migrants in the UK.

We joined forces with Buckinghamshire Local Enterprise Partnership and Pinewood Studios to form an innovative project – Bucks Creates@Pinewood – to invest £1.6 million into the development of new masters and bachelor’s programmes.

We enjoyed a second consecutive rise in the Sunday Times Good University Guide, ranking in the top 20 of all UK Universities for social inclusion, and 6th best for reducing the attainment gap between black students and other graduates. That success was reflected in an even larger rise in the Guardian University Guide, where we jumped an extraordinary 28 places, the 9th biggest rise in the UK.

The National Student Survey 2020 revealed the University to be in the top 20 of all UK universities for student satisfaction, and employment data showed the University to have one of the best employment rates in the UK, with 98% of graduates in employment or further study, a figure which is better than for 20 of the 24 Russell Group universities.

Building on an impressive 64% reduction in our carbon emissions since 2011, the University declared a climate emergency, joined the Climate Commission Council, signed up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and pledged to go carbon net zero by 2030.

We launched a Give to Refresh initiative, to help local people living in hygiene poverty, being the first university community in London or the South of England to do so.

And of course, we have done much to support our students, our staff, our local communities, and the NHS in tackling the coronavirus crisis. We were one of the first Universities to release students from accommodation contracts and to put in place a no-detriment policy. When we were unable to host in-person graduation ceremonies, we put in place online alternatives.  We delivered bedding and food packages to our students in halls of residence and those in quarantine. We issued more than £100k in hardship funding, gave more than 13,500 items of PPE to the NHS, and transformed our campuses with sanitiser, temperature scanners, signage and one-way systems. And throughout, our brave health and social care students and staff continued to do their bit directly supporting the NHS and working on the front line.

Our University will continue to experience challenge. We must continue to combat discrimination and prejudice, and work to eliminate racism in our community, including the prejudice and inequalities facing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in higher education. But I take great heart from our record of success in rising to these challenges, guided by the principle that we will always strive to do the right thing and meet our social responsibilities.