How universities can help unlock and nurture diverse local talent

Nishan Canagarajah shares the work the University of Leicester is doing to coalesce investment, effort, and support to provide new opportunities in northwest Leicester

Nishan Canagarajah is President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester

Diversity defines our city and is at the heart of who we are as a university.

It underpins everything we do and leads to world-leading breakthroughs in research that would otherwise not be possible. For example, during the pandemic, clinical trials from Leicester helped identify that Covid-19 had a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority communities – a finding that shaped government pandemic responses across the globe.


Our city and our University are interconnected, and that relationship supports research in health, colonial history, inclusive representation in museums, and tackling hate crime, to name just a few examples. Our work is strengthened by the diversity of our city and we have a reciprocal responsibility to ensure that the university is both accessible to local people and brings real benefits to our communities – especially in areas that are often left behind.

In northwest Leicester, we are putting this commitment into practice by investing into a community that is among the five per cent most disadvantaged in the UK, according to the Indices of Multiple Deprivation, and where just 15 per cent of young people progress to higher education. We have a laser focus on improving these outcomes by leveraging our world-leading space research and removing barriers to education for local young people.

Since 1960 the University has been involved in 90 space missions and has had an instrument in space continuously throughout that period. Building on this global reputation the University has invested £100 million in northwest Leicester to create the UK’s first space industry-academic hub, Space Park Leicester. This pioneering hub is attracting the biggest names in the space industry – including Rolls Royce, CGI, and the UK Space Agency – and supporting local regeneration in an area that has seen a lack of investment. It will create 2,500 jobs and provide highly skilled employment opportunities.

We realise that for young people in northwest Leicester to take advantage of these opportunities we need to remove barriers and improve educational opportunities. By working on pathways of opportunity that start in local schools and lead to highly skilled careers, we are connecting the dots from primary school to PhD to prosperous careers in the space industry. We are determined to ensure that young people in northwest Leicester see the space sector as an opportunity that is open to them.

In partnership with IntoUniversity and De Montfort University, and backed by local partners, we are investing in a dedicated centre to support local primary and secondary school children with their education. Children attend after school academic support sessions to improve their subject knowledge and learn independent study skills to help them overcome the barriers they face. They also receive additional careers advice from leading corporate mentors and one-to-one educational support from university students. Importantly, everything is delivered in partnership with our local school leaders, who are the experts and know their children best.

The impact of IntoUniversity centres has been remarkable – with 61 per cent of IntoUniversity alumni progressing to higher education, compared to 28 per cent of students from similar backgrounds nationally. This represents a 33-percentage point uplift on the national average – an enormous difference that turns the dial on educational disadvantage.

We aim to achieve the same levels of impact in northwest Leicester and, in doing so, ensure local young people have every opportunity to access higher education and access to global space careers at Space Park Leicester.

Coalitions of change

The IntoUniversity centre has been funded with the support of generous local philanthropists from the area. Nik Kotecha of the Randal Foundation fled Uganda with his family as a child. After arriving in Leicester as refugee, he pursued a university education, going on to build a global pharmaceuticals business, before turning his attention to giving back to his community and supporting children facing similar barriers to him. Ian Mattioli, from the Mattioli Charitable Trust, was born in northwest Leicester close to the centre and is determined to help children from a similar background, drawing on his experience as a co-founder of a successful financial services business.

Another example of a similar approach is our Medicine with Foundation Year programme. It was established with the support of local-born philanthropists committed to the area, Will and Nadine Adderley of the Stoneygate Trust, to give local students access to a highly selective degree and career. Foundation programmes have been in the media spotlight for the access they provide for international students, yet primarily they play a role in enabling local students to access sought-after careers. Results of its first graduating cohort showed that foundation students performed exceptionally well. Proof that talent exists across all our communities and that, with the right approach, universities can help unlock it.

End to End

We are at the beginning of a journey in Leicester which we hope will make a tangible difference. An end-to-end approach: inspiring young people to believe in themselves, providing access to visible role models, working in partnership with philanthropists and businesses, delivering targeted support, providing diverse pathways into university, attracting employers to Leicester, and supporting access to skilled careers that support a good standard of living.

Our aim is to help unlock and nurture diverse local talent and provide opportunities that speak to our University’s founding mission and motto ‘ut vitam habeant’ – so that they may have life.

2 responses to “How universities can help unlock and nurture diverse local talent

  1. Inspiring work, Nissan and so wonderful to see the founding of a new IntoUniversity centre in Leicester. You make a vital point about strengthening subject knowledge which is key to educational success, particularly for those facing disadvantage.

  2. Would add that Coaches and Mentors can unleash people’s potentials and help.them.thrive.

    I the area of STEM and understand how some people can feel neglected and not developed by way of their ethnic origin.

    Here to advise and guide and based in LE11 3JF but educated at former Polytechnic in mid 70’s in Chemistry!

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