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LET’S TALK MORE: NISHAN CANAGARAJAH

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Professor Nishan Canagarajah is the current President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester, who has been in the role since November 2019.

He is passionate about the successful and highly respected institution, which is currently ranked at number 27 in the Times Higher Education Rankings.

Here he talks to Pukaar about his career, as well as his other passions, which include sport, cooking, engineering and the city of Leicester itself.

Professor Nishan speaks of great pride about his role at the University of Leicester – a role which sees him lead the direction of the the University’s business and academic strategies as well as working with colleagues to build on the University’s world class reputation in research and teaching.

Born and educated in Sri Lanka, he has always been a keen and talented academic, someone who excelled in subjects at school, particularly maths and physics which he enjoyed from a young age.

Success in these subjects led him towards the path of engineering, and also being offered a scholarship at UK’s prestigious University of Cambridge.

It was here where he received his undergraduate degree in 1989, before going on to do a PHD in 1993.

He describes his experience of coming to the UK as “transformational” – a move which opened up incredible opportunities for him and his budding and very ambitious career.

“It opened up opportunities that wouldn’t have been imaginable when I was growing up”, he told Pukaar.

“It’s gave me ambition and taught me what is possible in life, and that is transformational”.

However, Nishan also admits that coming to the UK on a scholarship put him under “a lot of pressure” to do well academically.

“I wanted to make sure I did well and do the people who gave me the scholarship proud, and also go on to do great things in my life, by doing well in my studies”, he said.

And he certainly went on to achieve those ambitions.

After gaining his PHD, Professor Nishan joined the University of Bristol as a research assistant, and worked in a number of academic roles, including the Faculty of Engineering Research Director, Head of Department of Computer Science, Head of Merchant Venturers School of Engineering and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering.  He became Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise in August 2014.

It is clear that he is a man with a lot of ambition, and who puts a lot of pressure on himself to do well and make a difference in the world, something which is at the heart of the University of Leicester’s philosophy.

So how does the Professor unwind from such a hugely important role?

Cooking is one thing which really helps him to relax he says.

“In the kind of job I do, you’re always mentally occupied. There’s always something to do, so it’s nice to do an activity where you can switch off”, he said of the pursuit.

“I also like entertaining people. I find it a very good way of bringing people together, sharing something, and having an informal conversation. I find that very enjoyable”.

Sport is also something which appeals to Nishan, for its ability to bring people together, and also develop strong life and character skills.

“There are a lot of characteristics that you develop in a sporting field; determination, playing as a team and fighting to the end”, he said.

“I’ve always enjoyed sports and carried on playing them until very recently. However, due to time commitments and my age, I can’t do everything I used to do”, he added.

“So I now just try and keep myself fit, and wherever I can I go and watch live events, or watch it on TV”.

Nishan is keen on a wide range of sports including cricket and football.

In fact Leicester City’s recent remarkable success is one of the things which attracted him to the city which he loves for its culture and diversity.

“I was very attracted by Leicester because people knew about the football and King Richard III, but I think the biggest thing that was attractive to me was the diversity of the city”, he explained.

“It’s a city that is a real melting pot of different cultures, different ethnicities, and I was very attracted by that. I thought I would enjoy the role, I could fit in”.

In his role as Vice Chancellor, Nishan is not only keen to enhance the reputation of the University of Leicester, which is highly regarded for its world class contribution to medicine and space research, but also to help enrich the city as a whole.

“Despite the success and the reputation of Leicester, it has significant challenges”, he said.

“There are parts of Leicester which are some of the most deprived in the country and we cannot be a successful city if we have that level of depravation in the community.

“What I would like to do is work with businesses, the community leaders and the city leaders to see how we can all pull together to raise the life opportunities for these communities, so they are as successful as the rest of us are”.

This year the University of Leicester is celebrating its 100th year. It started out life with 11 students and now has a body of 20,000.

It is currently ranked at number 27 in the Times Higher Education Ranking. However Nishan is confident that he can, and its 3,500 committed members of staff can help increase it even further over the next few years.

“It’s a success story and it’s going to be an even greater success story over the next century”, he said.

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