Not for the first time, Leicester lays claim to be a unique place in the UK. According to the 2021 Census data, it has emerged as the first plural city in the UK where no ethnic group has a majority. In the blog below, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President & Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, describes the opportunities and challenges this presents.
A new age of ‘super diversity’ and ‘minority majority’ cities proclaimed The Guardian, as it cited Leicester in an article about the 2021 Census data. The Leicester Mercury was a little more direct in identifying Leicester among the first cities in the UK where white people are no longer the majority.
For those of us who are familiar with Leicester, and for a University that carries the city’s name, there is a heightened awareness of our distinctive credentials – as well as the way we are perceived by others.
The Independent declared in 2013 that Leicester was the most multicultural city on the planet – so data a decade later showing Leicester to be the most plural city in the UK came as little surprise. For a city that was once the richest in the UK and the second richest in Europe, and which had seen settlement by different people since pre-Roman times, Leicester has a history that is as economically rich as it is ethnically diverse.
Given our city’s history and ‘super diversity’, it is in many ways the perfect place for a university community – and this is reflected through the representation of ethnicities and nationalities across our staff and student communities. The University has been shaped by the diverse make-up of its locality – and has in turn shaped the city in which it is located – and this informs our approach to research, education, and engagement with our local community.
Leicester’s super-diversity has made our research more distinctive and world-changing. Our researchers were the first to identify the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minority communities. This was thanks to long-standing relationships with our communities and participation rates in COVID-19 clinical trials that were three times higher than anywhere else in the UK. Our Biomedical Research Centre has received a £26 million funding boost including for research addressing ethnic health disparities and ‘Big Pharma’ choose Leicester for clinical trials because of our ‘super-diversity’ – due to the recognition that most drugs have historically only been tested on white men.
Our Colonial Countryside project based at the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing involves 100 primary pupils, predominantly of African, Caribbean, Chinese and South Asian heritage, along with authors and historians producing creative commissions, exploring country houses’ Caribbean and East India Company connections.
In Museum Studies our researchers are emphasising the dynamic relationship between museums and society and the significant role museums can play in advancing equality and diversity. Their research explores barriers and issues faced by marginalised communities in accessing museums, galleries heritage and the arts.
Our Migration Mobility and Citizenship Network seeks to draw inspiration from the lived experience of mobility, migration and citizenship in the everyday lives of the residents of Leicester and beyond. Given the University’s location in a super-diverse city, the network has access to a migration resource, enabling comparisons with migration processes in other larger and smaller urban locations
World-leading research by the School of Archaeology and Ancient History on Roman-era identities, and large-scale investigation of Roman Leicester by University of Leicester Archaeological Services has been synthesised and made accessible through a programme for schools called Life in the Roman World. The programme has introduced new non-traditional audiences to the complex diverse communities of the Roman world through the prism of local heritage. The initiative has influenced the strategy of schools, heritage bodies and universities regionally and internationally, making Roman-era history, culture and language accessible to over 10,000 participants, including more than 7,000 pupils, many facing multiple intersecting disadvantages. It continues to flourish, promoting social justice and transforming lives.
Building on this, the University is leading research on the analysis of Census data to understand the socio-demographics of Leicester at a granular level and support policymakers. The Census@Leicester Project will create a series of conversations about the data with key groups who may use the data in their planning, service intervention, and practice.
Our preliminary research data reveals interesting findings about the changing nature of the city:
- 59.1 per cent of people living in Leicester are from ethnic minority groups. Across England and Wales, 81.7% of individuals were of a white ethnicity.
- 41.1% of individuals living in Leicester were born outside of the UK compared to 16.8% in England and Wales.
- There has been a 7.5% increase in the population born outside UK living in Leicester since 2011, compared to a 3.4% rise in England & Wales.
- There was an 8.9% increase in the number of residents who hold a non-UK passport since 2011, compared to a 2.5% increase in England & Wales
- English is spoken as a first language by 70% of Leicester’s residents, compared to 91.1% for England & Wales.
We are based in UK’s first plural city and we are immensely proud to be a plural university: 42 per cent of our students identify as Asian, 34 per cent as white, 11 per cent as black, and 8 per cent as other ethnic minority backgrounds – with the remaining 5 per cent not declaring their ethnicity. Our University is in many ways the ‘University of Inclusion’.
Our diversity brings huge benefits to all our students. They receive a truly inclusive experience, make friends with people from diverse backgrounds and faiths, and enjoy a city that is an exciting melting pot of cultural experiences. They quite literally have the world on their doorstep. Their education is global and truly prepares them for world that awaits them. We know that many employers come to Leicester because of the diversity of our student body, and because our graduates are able to articulate clearly their skills and the value they can add to an employer’s organisation.
Our University draws on our local environment to deliver inspiring and relevant teaching and learning opportunities. In Modern Languages, students undertake ‘Linguistic Landscape’ induction activities which engage directly with the diverse languages of the local area, and in Sociology, innovative course design takes students into the city to explore ethnicity, migration, and social class in a ‘Live’ environment.
But diversity also brings challenges. On my first day at the University of Leicester, I vowed to eliminate the awarding gap for minority ethnic students, address the poor representation of minority ethnic staff, and ensure we create a truly inclusive curriculum.
Tackling these issues is a key focus for the University. Being home to a large ethnically diverse student community enables us to maintain and progress our commitment to ensure that our curriculum, student support and all services that we deliver create a truly inclusive environment for every student to flourish and achieve their full potential.
Having people of different faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds can also lead to flashpoints – as was the case recently in the city where there were disturbances involving different groups. But it also provides an opportunity – to lead the conversation nationally, and promote harmonious relationships between and across communities in a modern age.
At Leicester, we are having those conversations involving the city, faith organisations and universities. And we are celebrating our ‘super diversity’ and extolling the values of having such a varied population in our midst. We sponsor the Diwali festival which is the biggest outside of India and are involved in the local Curry Awards marking the diverse culinary delights of the city. Our Migration Network led community events to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of South Asians into Leicester following their expulsion from Uganda, while we take a partnership approach to promote ethnic diversity across sport and physical activity in the UK, and address the lack of diversity among sports leaders.
Leicester is the only university in the country with a unit specifically positioned to support Sanctuary Seekers. As we strive to create a more fair and humane society, the values of compassion, of justice, and inclusion enrich our University and mark our commitment to create a better world.
Our approach harnesses the spirit of those who helped establish the University and of those activists who were pioneers in the fight for equality. The international diversity of the University has had a profound impact on the city through the decades. Former Principal of the University Fred Attenborough, father of David and Richard, offered sanctuary to two German-Jewish refugee children, in their family home on campus, during the Second World War. His wife, Mary Attenborough, was active in providing homes for Basque children fleeing the Spanish Civil War.
Today, our University is supporting Afghan and Ukranian refugees and asylum seekers and, for example, through the British Academy’s Researchers-at-Risk programme, we currently have two Ukrainian academic fellows in our Schools of Business and Law.
The city of Leicester has a unique place in the UK. The ‘super diversity’ of our city and University means we can lead the conversation that will provide important lessons for others within the sector and beyond. I welcome the opportunities that presents.