Let us join, Leicester vice-chancellor tells Russell Group

Nishan Canagarajah says expansion of prestigious UK university grouping to include his institution is long overdue

September 21, 2023
Nishan Canagarajah

As open day visitors wander through the imposing Georgian architecture, striking modernist buildings and leafy green spaces of the University of Leicester’s campus, a common mistake is made, explained its vice-chancellor, Nishan Canagarajah. “Many of them assume this is a Russell Group university,” he said.

That misapprehension might be understandable because, putting aside its attractive and extensively refurbished campus, the university ticks every box that might be required for entry into the 24-strong group of research-intensive universities, continued Professor Canagarajah. Whether on academic tradition (Leicester was founded in 1921 and gained a Royal Charter in 1957), internationally acclaimed research (DNA forensic science was pioneered there in the 1980s), its respected medical school or its global standing (22nd nationally in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings), the East Midlands university’s credentials to join the Russellers are undeniable, he insisted.

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“Everyone looking at Leicester says, ‘This should be a Russell Group university,’” said Professor Canagarajah, who cited the university’s 2021 Research Excellence Framework results to underscore his arguments. “In the REF, we were 30th overall but we were second for clinical medicine, and if you take an average of all Panel D [arts and humanities] subjects, we were top nationally,” he said.

Some might wonder if dwelling so publicly on Leicester’s absence from a self-selecting elite is wise, but Professor Canagarajah said it was an anomaly that needed to be highlighted.

“Whether you like the idea of the Russell Group, its institutions are regarded as elite and that makes a difference,” he reflected, noting how the group’s powerful brand aids international recruitment, particularly for the 150,000 Chinese students now in the UK, mostly in Russell Group universities. “For Leicester, it would make a difference for financial sustainability, but it would also be good recognition that we are reaching this high level.”

With “two or maybe three other universities” with similar claims, “why shouldn’t it be a group of 28 institutions?” asked Professor Canagarajah.

Such conversations might spark uncomfortable discussions about what or, more precisely, who the Russell Group is for. “The brand has, over the years, helped our country’s universities, but for some of our students, it does a disservice to them if they don’t value their achievements as highly as Russell Group graduates,” Professor Canagarajah said.

Yet the process for joining the group or its selection criteria remains decidedly opaque, with the universities of Durham, Exeter and York, as well as Queen Mary University of London, most recently admitted in 2012.

Leicester’s admission would also correct a historical quirk that saw the university decline an offer to join the group as a founder member in 1994. Ken Edwards, who was its vice-chancellor then, perceived a conflict of interest with his role as president of the forerunner to Universities UK, which was set up to represent all universities.

With 47 per cent of Leicester’s students coming from ethnic minority backgrounds, its membership would also bring greater diversity to the group, said Professor Canagarajah, a Sri Lankan-born engineer who arrived in the UK aged 18 on a scholarship to study at Christ College, Cambridge.

“We are the most diverse research-intensive university in the UK, and our inclusion would push the Russell Group’s ethnic diversity from 20.3 per cent to 20.9 per cent. When you have a very diverse university in one of Britain’s most diverse cities performing to Russell Group standards, I think that should be recognised – I think the group should want that fixed,” he said.

Professor Canagarajah insisted that the controversial restructuring of Leicester’s research portfolio, which he undertook shortly after arriving as vice-chancellor in November 2019, would further bolster the institution’s claim, and its ambition to be a top 20 university nationally. Consultation on making 60 staff redundant saw University and College Union (UCU) members back a motion of no confidence in January 2021, but the cuts were “necessary”, the vice-chancellor said, because they targeted research areas where improvement was impossible given the small size of some research groups.

“We did not want to close down any departments because we will always be a comprehensive university, but there were some areas where we would teach but not do research,” explained Professor Canagarajah.

Any suggestion that the redundancies were targeted at union-affiliated staff – principally within its business school, where UCU general secretary Jo Grady had worked – was entirely misleading, he insisted. “UCU made a big play on Twitter about the business school and didn’t mention maths, neuroscience and why we’d taken these decisions – it was frustrating,” said Professor Canagarajah, who insisted that a more gradual approach would not have worked. “We could have gone slowly, but you lose time and sometime lose people that you don’t want to lose.”

With the calibre of academic staff at Leicester as high as at the University of Bristol, where he was based for 25 years, most recently as pro vice-chancellor of research, Professor Canagarajah’s job is to deploy a strategy that ensures proper recognition of their work, and Russell Group membership will help with that, he said.

“Personally, it does not matter for me, but it matters for my staff and students – it’s important that their hard work is acknowledged,” he said.


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Reader's comments (2)

Membership of the Russel Group seem to be more like a club than anything merit based. If it was merit based it would change far more often than it does (leavers as well as additions).
I'm afraid this plea to be part of the Russell group strikes me as a tad desperate and revealing a profound lack of self confidence at Leicester. There isn't really anything distinctive about the Russell Group beyond being a group of universities whose Vice Chancellors, in times long lost to memory, met at the Russell hotel in London to chew the cud before UUK meetings , possibly part of a general reaction of 'pre-1992' unis to the abolition of the binary divide and expansion of UUK membership ( UUK itself then becoming too unwieldy a group to be effective lobbyists.) In fact it actually started way back in the 'good old days' when UUK was CVCP. ( It really is all ancient history now. ) There may be a superficial group branding point I guess but then the University recently declared number one in the UK ( St Andrews) has never been part of the Russell Group and I dare say has no intention of diluting its own identity by joining the group. Forget it, Leicester, be proud of your own identity and work on your own brand and achievements.