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Nishan Canagarajah

12 October 2021, 3:59 UTC Share

Change is a Kaleidoscope of Colour

Professor Nishan Canagarajah explains why it is vital to drive forward EDI initiatives in HE in order to influence change both outside and within universities.

It’s Black History Month – a time to celebrate and shine a light on the contribution of people from African and Caribbean backgrounds to humanity.

Universities across the country mark the occasion with events that celebrate Black history, culture and arts. At Leicester, we highlight the achievements, culture and milestones that symbolise Black history. Our campaign phrase, Proud to be, emphasises intersectionality and activism along with last year’s ‘We Are Black History’ Campaign, giving Black people ownership of what Black History is. In doing so, we are conscious of our role in influencing policy, engagement and change in our own community and the wider world.

Proud as we are of being a diverse community of staff and students, we also recognise there is much work to be done. UUK’s Report on Racial Harassment found that harassment and microaggressions continue to be common experiences for staff and students along with homophobia and transphobia. Our academics have led the way in bringing evidence based research to influence policy in the area. Our Centre for Hate Studies, for example, has informed hate crime interventions of senior policymakers, from the Law Commission and Crown Prosecution Service, to the Office for Students .

The global pandemic has exacerbated disparities between communities – a recent AccessHE Report highlighted the probability of life chances being influenced by socio-economic background and race. Our researchers at Leicester were also among the first in the world to highlight the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the health of Black and ethnic minority communities which has helped to shape policy and public health interventions.

I am in the privileged position of being the first non-white leader of this university in a century. The University is in the first plural city in the UK and that has the highest proportion of south Asians and British Asians anywhere in Britain. And the University has a proud history in the early days of the anti-racist movement locally. 

All this has a bearing on who we are and where we go from here. I have an unwavering commitment to equality and inclusivity, and I have served as a member of the UUK advisory group to tackle racial harassment in higher education. From personal experience, I know what it is like to suffer microaggressions and prejudice. I am aware of other equality groups too being conspicuous by their absence – especially in leadership positions.

I am determined things must change. That means influencing policy and practice outside higher education, but crucially also within it. I signalled from my first day at Leicester that I intend to tackle inequality and set the standard for diversity and inclusion in higher education. I pledged to eliminate the awarding gap for minority ethnic students, address the shortage of minority ethnic staff, and create a truly inclusive curriculum.

That is why I am proud to be launching, later this academic year, the Leicester Institute for Inclusivity in Higher Education. This institute will become the flagship leader in transformational higher education with research intended to guide and inform best practice across the sector.

Under Dr Paul Campbell as director, an award winning academic and lecturer in the sociology of race and inclusion, it has the potential to change higher education by addressing awarding gaps and outcome differences affecting students from all backgrounds. The Institute will be active in building sustainable partnerships, internally and externally, with a view to influencing sector policy and practice nationally and internationally.

Dr Campbell’s current project evaluates the effectiveness of curriculum toolkits for improving the relatability of courses to the lived experiences of students from minority ethnic backgrounds, improving minority ethnic students’ satisfaction, and in addressing the award gap.

Our approach to embedding EDI in the curriculum and taking a global approach to education was interpreted in sections of the media as an attempt to erase white history and white writers and was taken as an assault on British heritage by ‘woke culture’. It was not. It was about making our curriculum inclusive, representative and relevant to a globally, racially and socially diverse student body, and fit for a modern and outward-looking 21st century Britain. 

All this makes it imperative for us to collectively drive change through our policy influence both external to our universities and within them. To continue the conversation on EDI not simply during Black History Month but every day and to frame everything we do within the perspective of EDI. That is why I look forward to the launch later this month of the UPEN EDI subcommittee report on ‘surfacing EDI in academic policy engagement’.

Change isn’t simply black or white. It’s a kaleidoscope of colour.

Professor Nishan Canagarajah is President & Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, ranked as a top 25 UK university in the 2020 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Born and educated in Sri Lanka, he is a double Cambridge graduate and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bristol.

Nishan has been appointed to a number of national roles including being a member of the UUK advisory group to tackle racial harassment in higher education and serves as a Commissioner for the Midlands Innovation TALENT Policy Commission .

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