Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Reflecting on a Centenary

  • 11 April 2022
  • By Nishan Canagarajah

This blog was contributed by Nishan Canagarajah, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester. In celebrating its past, the University of Leicester has found inspiration for its future mission.

Levelling up, equality of opportunity, and geopolitical stability –these are all Government priorities of today which compare with those of the post-First World War era during which the University of Leicester was founded.

During the course of our Centenary year, we have been drawing inspiration from our past to shape our future. Our motto Ut Vitam Habeant – that they may have life – provides us with a mission and purpose to harness the power of higher education for transformative impact upon society.

In our reflections of the past, we have found that what was true for us 100 years ago also drives our mission today.

Leicester has a distinctive place as the only university in the country to be established through philanthropy by the local community as a living memorial to those who made sacrifices in the First World War.

We were established to provide hope of a better and more peaceful tomorrow.

Our founders, of course, looked to education as a way to promote understanding and end the devastation of global conflicts. It is a matter of great sorrow that the 20th century witnessed a catastrophic Second World War and that a harrowing war is raging in Ukraine today.

Perhaps now is the ideal time to reflect on the lessons of our past and the importance of education in creating an inclusive and peaceful world.

Universities are ideally placed to deliver upon the noble aim. In the UK, we are fortunate to have many notable institutions who have pioneered inclusion as part of their histories.

‘Levelling up’ and ‘equality of opportunity’ are Government priorities of today that are enshrined in the University of Leicester’s very origins.

In discussions for establishing the University, reported in the Leicester Mail, the then Mayor Walter Lovell said, ‘opportunities should be given to the children of the poor as well as children of the rich – that clever brains no matter where they emanated should be given every opportunity for culture.’

A powerful example of this can be found in Nellie Bonsor, one of our pioneering founding students. By the time she was interviewed for a place at the University College, her father had died and her widowed mother earned a living as a laundress. Nellie went on to become the first President of the Students’ Union.

I am proud that Leicester is one of the most socially inclusive of the UK’s leading research-intensive universities. For example, 45 per cent of our students are from the lowest three Polar4 quintiles and 53 per cent of our students are from ethnically-diverse backgrounds.

Our ambitious plans, informed by our past, set out our vision to become the University of Inclusion with a focus on realising potential by removing barriers, such as those faced by class, race and gender.

In the 1950s, the University was a multi-cultural oasis in a largely mono-cultural city. In the following decades, many of our staff and students championed the cause for equality as the city saw the arrival of refugees and migrants from all parts of the world. Leicester became the UK’s first plural city (where no ethnic group is in the majority) and as a University of Sanctuary we continue to advocate for inclusion and provide support for refugees fleeing conflicts.

All this gives greater impetus to our current priorities. Over the past year, universities across the UK have stepped up to support refugees and asylum seekers, including those who have fled Afghanistan and Ukraine. The Sanctuary Seekers’ Unit at the University of Leicester was established to provide opportunities to refugees and asylum seekers through a range of initiatives, including scholarships, free language classes and involving them in day-to-day university life.

Our approach harnesses the spirit of those who helped establish the University and of those activists who were pioneers in the fight for equality. Including former Principal of the University Fred Attenborough, father of David and Richard, who offered sanctuary to two German-Jewish refugee children, in their family home on campus, during the Second World War.

Universities are often expressions of the will of local people, a function of our places, borne out of the needs of local communities and cultures. Or in our case, the desire of the people of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland to create hope of a better tomorrow through inclusive higher education.

Philanthropists who helped establish the University between 1919 and 1921 had children who served in the armed forces, and lost their lives, during the First World War.

Philanthropy continues to play a vital part to advance, promote and sustain higher learning in many universities today. At Leicester, throughout its 100-year history, philanthropy has helped the institution achieve exceptional heights.  Our founders would be astonished – and I hope also proud – at the future global impact of their philanthropic gifts.

It was here that DNA fingerprinting was discovered. Leicester has supported space missions in every decade since the 1960s and discovered the infamous King Richard III under a car park, having a transformative impact on the local economy. The University, like many across the country, has played a key role in advising Government and shaping our response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. At Leicester, we discovered that people from BAME backgrounds were more susceptible to severe cases of Coronavirus and were chosen to lead a major national study into Long COVID.

Looking to the future, our University will establish a new Centre for Empathic Healthcare through the support of the Stoneygate Trust. The trust, which is based in our local community, has previously supported the development of a Medicine Foundation Year, which enables local and national students to enrol into Medicine. Like 100 years ago, philanthropists are looking to the university to make a positive difference to their local communities and beyond.

In March 2022, the University of Leicester held its annual Literary Leicester Festival, bringing writers, poets, historians and biographers to Leicester in a series of free events for our local community. The Literary Leicester Festival has been funded generously by the Jean and Arthur Humphreys Fund, which will also support the appointment of a Jean Humphreys Professorship and Writer in Residence at Leicester.

A key strength of the UK’s higher education system is its range and diversity of institutions each with their own distinctive missions. Our universities have been founded in different eras, for different reasons and to serve differing purposes. Our evolution over centuries and independence to pursue our own unique purposes has created a vibrant sector. One that delivers more Nobel prizes than any other country in the world, at the same time as providing vocational courses to train nurses, police officers, and talented technicians.

As we consider the outcomes of the Augar report and consultations on minimum entry requirements and baseline quality thresholds, it is important that policy standardisation does not inadvertently remove what I consider to be our sector’s greatest strength – our diversity of heritages and purposes.

Our variety and diversity can be a challenge for policymakers, who are faced with having to learn about the depth and breadth of more than 140 separate institutions, each operating within their own local contexts. However, a one-size-fits-all approach in higher education policy rarely works and that is why understanding our histories is so critical to finding our futures.

Our charters and founding missions are not meant to be simply consigned to history – they are the key to determine the direction of our future.

1 comment

  1. Dr Ronald Hartz says:

    As a former employee at the University of Leicester School of Business, I have problems to link these reflections to the recent strategic changes at the Business School. Last year the VC and the SMT decided that Critical Management Studies and Political Economy has no longer a place at the School. Scholars were made redundant because their research was classified as ‘questioning the authority and relevance of mainstream management thinking and practice’ or showing ‘ a commitment to social justice’. In ‘divesting’ from research in Critical Management Studies and Political Economy, the leadership of the University did not just ignored the heritage and global reputation of critical scholarship at the School, but decided that research which questions the mainstream knowledge of management theory and practice does no longer ‘align’ with the direction of the School. How does such a decision relate to the slogan #CitizensOfChange? And how does such a decision can be linked to the statement that the sector’s greatest strength is ‘our diversity of heritages and purposes’? As the editors of the journal Organization put it: “Precisely at a time in which equality, inclusion, environmental sustainability, social justice … become more central in the public debate on the future of our economies and businesses, those pioneering scholars that laid their foundations are identified as disposable.” It is sad and very troubling that such voices and the many other statements from the community of scholars were ignored by Prof. Canagarajah.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *