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Transcript: Prof Nishan Canagarajah, President & Vice-Chancellor at University of Leicester on Reimagining HE 🎧

Andrea Collings

Andrea Collings

Dec 17, 2022

This is Reimagining The Future of Higher Education from Studiosity. Your go-to podcast with remarkable education leaders, sharing personal stories from their experience in and around the sector, including reflection and evidence for progress in the sector. With your host, Sir Eric Thomas, former Vice-Chancellor of University of Bristol, President of Universities UK and Chair of the Worldwide University Network, and now Studiosity Academic Advisory Board  member .

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Sir Eric Thomas: Today it's my great pleasure to introduce both a good friend and a very good colleague, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, who is now President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Leicester. But him and I plotted together for many a long year at the University of Bristol when he was in the Faculty of Engineering, and Nishan you might want to just introduce your background a little bit and then we'll move on to the main subject matter. 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: Pleasure, Eric. Thank you very much for having me and it's great to be able to talk to you again and just a brief history, I originally come from Sri Lanka, a place called Jaffna. I did all my primary and secondary education there, in the medium of Tamil. And then I was very fortunate to get a scholarship to come to Cambridge at Christ's College to do my undergraduate degree in engineering and information sciences, which was a big culture shock, coming to a new country for the first time, having never been abroad. So it was all a new experience, very exciting, but also daunting at the same time. There I was able to do reasonably well and I was very grateful to get another scholarship to do my PhD there. And after that I got the opportunity to work in Bristol, which I thoroughly enjoyed for twenty-five years as a professor in engineering, then as Dean of Engineering, and then Pro Vice Chancellor for research when you were the Vice Chancellor, which was a real pleasure to be there as part of the senior team. That helped me to come to Leicester to be the President and Vice Chancellor, which is a lovely university in one of the most diverse cities in the UK, and enjoying it at the moment.

Sir Eric Thomas: Well, I think you've hit the nail right on the head about diversity. I don't know if you know Nishan, but in 1977 to 1978 I lived in Leicester for a year. I was a junior doctor at the Leicester General Hospital for a year and even then, and this is forty-five years ago, it was a spectacularly diverse city then, in comparison to the north east where I had come from. And now 59% of the population of Leicester, or 59.1%, is is an ethnic minority. And I have often argued, as you know, that universities are affected and reflected on, the place that they are. And I just wondered what you think is kind of special about the University of Leicester related to that city and its diversity? 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: Absolutely. I think it's a fantastic asset for a university because we are global entities and we attract students from all over the world and that diversity is already there in many universities. But what is nice about Leicester, it's not just within the university but it's outside the university geography as well. So when you go out to the city you see real diversity in the people. So as you said, I think the census was published 2021 census, as you mentioned, was published recently and it mentioned Leicester as the first plural city, no ethnic group is about 50%. So although Asians are 43% as the majority and then 40% of whites and then 10% of black and Caribbean heritage. So it is a very different city to any other city in the UK. And how that has benefited us, I think in many of our research areas we have benefited hugely, just to give you one example. So during, in most of our clinical trials, we have the local population consenting, consenting to people in clinical trials. So one recent example is during COVID, Leicester was one of the first cities to identify the disproportionate impact of COVID on ethnic minorities because that research was happening with our clinicians and population health scientists. So I think that is the kind of power of this diversity and similarly in other areas as well. So for example, in museum studies we have a very strong museum studies department. Their approach about museum studies is how that impacts LGBT+, how do we diversify museum and heritage sector, which is predominantly very homogeneous to other ethnic groups, other characteristics. So we are benefiting hugely from the city diversity. And I'm really pleased because I think when students from all over the world come into Leicester, they feel at home because it's not a completely alien environment for them.

Sir Eric Thomas: Right. I mean if I remember rightly, actually, I never got a great feeling of racial tension in Leicester when I lived there, but that's a long, that's a long time ago. I don't, is that an issue or is it relatively harmonious? 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: It is very harmonious. I think by and large people would say it is a harmonious city. But at the same time, I think we need to acknowledge as the city walls with this kind of plural city with no ethnic group being a majority, that also creates different types of challenges. The other reason I think is, although Leicester was diverse, lot of the Leicester population may be second, third generation community now. So we need to make them understand what a harmonious city we have really created in Leicester. So unfortunately there was an incident recently where there was a communal tension between the Hindu and the Muslim groups. It's very isolated, but nevertheless it's got a lot of attention in the press. But we need to be mindful. We don't want that to become a big problem for the city because as you say, it is a very harmonious city. I think nobody feels uncomfortable in the city, but like any major city, there are one or two incidents we need to manage as well.

Sir Eric Thomas: I was I was contemplating on the fact that the daughters, sons and granddaughters and grandsons of the babies I delivered in 1977. You know, that they're one type of ethnic minority. And of course, the other type is the type, that one is still welcoming into the city. In other words, you know, they're first generation. And that must create a different set of educational needs for one group as it does for another. 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: Yeah, absolutely. And recently in October, we celebrated the Uganda 50 because in 1972, we had the mass influx of Asians from Uganda coming into Leicester. So we had a big celebration and there are many people who were on the plane who came in 1972. But equally in the audience we have their grandchildren, who are thinking completely differently about life in the UK, who are embracing the opportunities, they are doing very well. I think in Leicester I have been impressed by how some of the ethnic groups have really excelled in making a many valuable contribution to the city, not just city, nationally as well. So it's good to see. But in terms of I think one example perhaps is how the education has changed for the second, third generation, is perhaps in the early days, most of the ethnic groups would have only gone for professional degrees in medicine, engineering, law. But what we are now seeing is they are interested in other areas of doing English and history and archaeology, which is fantastic to see. So I think that is very encouraging. 

Sir Eric Thomas: Right. So you're finding that they're actually taking, I had an experience when I did a national leadership program in 1995 where we went into West London, into Hounslow, and places like that, where the, the ethnic minorities made it plain that they were, where they saw their children getting out of that was medicine, law, accountancy. You know, they had a very fixed view as to the way. Not dissimilar, by the way, to the way my grandparents saw their children leaving the mining village in County Durham. And you're obviously saying that that's now kind of historical or certainly far less of a driver?

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: It's less, I think it's still there. I think still quite a lot of the Asian students would aspire to go into professional programs, but it's nice to see a reasonable proportion of those students are moving into other subjects as well. So just to give you one example, although that is welcoming, but also that introduces different challenges. So for example, how do we reflect that change in our curriculum? Because clearly now we have different sets of students coming into that program. So for example, in our English degree we have students from the Afro-Caribbean community, we have from the Asian community, and we can't assume the history that we taught fifteen years ago is the history that they're going to find interesting as well. They want to know more about the history. So one of the initiatives that we have in Leicester is given that we have this diversity how do we embed that in our curriculum, in the educational programs we offer, the student experience that we provide for the students? So for example, one of the things I'm very keen on is that when we think about student experience, we don't simply think in terms of academic content, because when the students go for help in careers service or go to the finance office, how do they feel? Do they feel it's the environment they identify with? So we need to think about how do we diversify our staff body in our professional services. So again, there is the relevant support for these students who are coming from different ethnic groups into our different programs. So it's great to see that diversity, but I'm highlighting that also introduces interesting challenges for a university, how we navigate these emerging opportunities as we move forward. 

Sir Eric Thomas: I mean, it's a it's an issue of content. I mean, English can't just be Milton and Shakespeare any longer. Lovely, though it was to study those, I did an English A-level and I loved, doing my Milton and Shakespeare. But, you know, that's not what's appropriate nowadays, particularly in a university like your own. And then there's this kind of, the debate around the cultural approach in these areas and is there a different cultural approach? And I just wondered what your thoughts on that were.

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: Yeah, I think we need to recognise. So for example, I think in history for example, and English, two courses that if I can pick on, it's not just about ethnicity, it's also about gender, it's also about LGBT, all these. How do we diversify and make this curriculum rich for those communities and also celebrate the fantastic contributions that are emerging from different groups as well. So we don't see the subject from a very narrow lens. So I think that is very encouraging and I'm very proud of all the colleagues in Leicester have responded to that. Sometimes we also are getting the newspaper headlines for that as if somewhere, somehow we are championing culture. We are not. We are a university. We value diversity, diversity in people, diversity of thought, diversity in content. That's what will make the best graduates coming out of Leicester. And I just want to make sure that's embedded and we do a lot. And the other piece of work that has been done recently, referring to your point about culture, is about assessment practises. So again, we have a notion the assessment is then a two hour exam or standard deliver a presentation. But we need to think about how if you do a group presentation, how do we make sure we get a fair assessment for students from different backgrounds, different cultures, different ways of expressing themselves? So we have to look at how do we assess our students? It's not just about the content and then how do we support our students? Some students might be very forthcoming, you know, asking for help. Some students might be much more reticent. And again, how do we kind of facilitate those kinds of support mechanisms for those students? So you're absolutely right. I think the content is one aspect of it, but then everything else. So we call it the scaffolding in Leicester, what kind of things we need to put in place to scaffold the learning and the development of the student. And that will vary depending on the student and what their needs are. It's challenging, but I'm pleased that we are making progress on that as well. 

Sir Eric Thomas: Yes, actually, somebody used a wonderful analogy recently, and I should attribute it, but I can't remember who it was. I think it might have been Steve West, the President Universities UK, that going through university is not about climbing a ladder, it's about navigating a climbing frame. And I thought that was an exceptionally good way of describing it. There is, of course, an academic "ladder", but there's a whole series of other routes up there that need to be at their best to help people, especially those for whom this might be, within their family, the first exposure to university. 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah  Absolutely right, I think that's a good analogy. I think it's basically how do we support students and also they might be in different stages. Some of them will be first time coming into university, never been there. And we have students, so in Leicester, for example, 11% of our students come from socio-disadvantaged, socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. So again, how do we, so for example, some of our although ethnic minority students are coming with a different set of skills, but they sometimes have the networks that these some of the students we are getting from socio-economic disadvantage backgrounds also have. So we want to encourage our students  to get internship, summer vacation, summer jobs. And we find that there are other mechanisms we need to put in place to help students to get those opportunities. So you're absolutely right. It's how do we create those opportunities for students rather than assuming everybody has same set of opportunities, same networks, to climb that ladder.

Sir Eric Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. One of the tensions that you've already alighted on a little bit is you run a global research intensive university with, for many reasons, a lot of global reach. Yet you have a set of duties to this very diverse city and the disadvantaged. And keeping that balance going, Nishan, must require some, quite astute leadership I would have thought?

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: Absolutely. I think it's a benefit because, I think, interestingly, in the modern world, a lot of the local challenges are global challenges as well. So let's speak to, so we touched briefly on health. Some of the challenges that we are working on in Leicester and, we have recently, a big announcement. Twenty-six billion was awarded to Leicester for our Biomedical Research Centre. It was five years ago, eleven million and we got twenty-six million, the largest increase, and that's because we capitalised on the fact we have a diverse community and we have been able to come up with research that answers some of the questions that matters to everybody around the world. Whether in Leicester we are well known for cardiovascular, respiratory cancer, and diabetes and multimorbidity, and these are areas where if we come up with the answers that is relevant to any population around the world. So for example, on the back of it recently we got another ten million to work with India and Nepal on multimorbidity, because we are able to start the program in Leicester, they clearly see the potential in India and Nepal. So that's one example and I think there are many in terms of climate change and environmental issues. We have, we live in a very dynamic city. We have issues about air pollution, we have issues about emissions because we are working in a very research intensive university and if we come up with solutions that matters to everybody around the globe, because everybody cares about climate change and the environmental impact. So I think the, as you correctly said, it's about finding the sweet spot that matters to our local community, but also it matters to the global audience. And what we do becomes relevant, because ultimately, I firmly believe the research we should do, we do should be relevant to the local and the global stage. 

Sir Eric Thomas: How much do you think your own experience of that transition from Sri Lanka to Cambridge, which must in 1984 or whenever it happened, be pretty tectonic, I would have thought. How much has that helped you understand what it's like for someone coming from a different ethnic background into a university? 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: It's a massive asset, Eric, because clearly I have unique experiences in the sense that not only ethnic, a different ethnic group, but also an international student. So being an international student in a UK university, what kind of experiences and the opportunities that I had, I want to ensure that we build on that in the university, both at Bristol and at Leicester. So it made a massive difference. And I also was able to see, the power of research that I couldn't see in Sri Lanka. So when I came here I could see the developments, global developments in health or technology or culture. When you see that you think it enriches everybody, not just the group that is developing it, but they then propagate to other parts of the world. So for example, in ten, fifteen years it will be very beneficial for the population in Sri Lanka or Africa. That I think is a good thing. So I'm very keen to make sure that we make a difference globally. But at the same time I tell this to my staff, we have to make a difference to the local community, otherwise we might as well be in Timbuktu. 

Sir Eric Thomas: Yes.

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: Why be in Leicester if the Leicester community don't see any benefit whatsoever of the presence of a university on their doorstep? So I make sure that our staff understand that and I think, that is something that I was able to again build on with my experience being an international student, spending all my time, Summer or Christmas, I didn't have any opportunity to go back, I had to spend time in Cambridge, similarly in Bristol. So you appreciate the local environment much more and it becomes part of you. So it's not like you're a student, you go there, do your degree and then you go somewhere else. For people who live in that community, the university has to make a tangible impact.

Sir Eric Thomas: Absolutely. When I did my interview for the VCship at Bristol, I started with a slide that said, universities transform people, transform knowledge, and transform places and the role of the place in the university and what the demography history of that place is, really affects what the university is like. I was doing a bit of research and there's been a long history of accepting migrants in Leicester back into the 19th century Jewish migrants, Italian, Irish, and then Belgians in the first, after the First World War. So, you know, the place that Leicester University grew from will affect the whole way Leicester University is.

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: Yeh. And even now, recently, we have been welcoming Ukraine refugees and Afghan refugees. So that has not gone away. It's, it's continuous and the university has is and for those listeners who don't know much about Leicester University, one of the facts that I'm proud of, Leicester University was founded in 1921 as a living memorial for those who made sacrifices in the First World War. The local community came together and said, we are going to create a living memorial and that's going to be a university. And they put the money to establish the university. The university started in 1921 with thirteen students and nine of them were women. And it is amazing. And today we have twenty thousand students and three thousand five hundred staff. It's a remarkable success story and that heritage still resonates in everything we do in Leicester. It's about building on that in terms of welcoming communities from all over the world, supporting the local community. And even now, as I said, with Ukraine and Afghan, so recently we ran a program called Bright Path Futures. So we had Afghan, a lot of Afghan women, middle-aged women, who never held a pen in their hand and can't read or write. And we have in our Centre for English teaching, transnational teaching. They offered a program offering free sessions for them to read and write and it was fantastic to see the smile on their face when they were able to hold a pen for the first time. 

Sir Eric Thomas: Absolutely. I remember visiting University of Bolton where there was a debate about why bother to to allow a, you know, a middle-aged ethnic minority woman to do a degree, when actually all they would do would be to to return home, to which the answer is yes but their children, their children will come. And we forget that, we forget that social mobility is a multi-generational phenomenon. It's not just one leap from, you know, a terraced house to an Oxford college, that that's a rare way of doing it actually. Another thing, I mean you you have a great reputation as a diversity champion, Nishan. And one of the areas where we're seeing very substantial increase diversity in university staff in general, but university leadership, particularly with ethnic minorities. I mean, I think when I was appointed in 2001, there was not an ethnic minority Vice Chancellor. I would think that would be the case and there were a very relatively small number of female Vice Chancellors. Now the latter has changed quite significantly, but still a way to go with ethnic minorities. Is that a fair comment?

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: Oh definitely a fair comment, Eric. I think a lot has changed and as you said, it's great to see more diversity in on gender amongst the Vice Chancellors, but there is a long way to go in terms of ethnic diversity amongst our UK Vice Chancellors. I think probably there's about five that I can think of out of 150, so it's not a great statistic. But I think the challenge is that leaders don't, are not made overnight, it's a long process. So we need to create these opportunities, pipeline of opportunities early on and I was very fortunate I was able to get those kind of leadership experience at Bristol, being a, you know, of research and then a Head of School and Dean of Engineering. And if you don't, you can't suddenly become a Vice Chancellor. I'd like to think the reason that I'm able to be effective as a Vice Chancellor is all the experience I got by holding those positions. That gives you an appreciation of the challenges at different stages in the, places in the organisation. So I think it requires a lot of thought. And also encouraging people to take on these roles and then we will see an increased number coming through. But at the same time, I think we, within the ethnic minority group, perhaps they find it difficult sometimes to find these opportunities. And how do we, we the networks or maybe they don't know how to navigate some of the challenges in terms of moving up into higher education leadership. So we think about what kind of additional training, support programs we can put in place for that. But I think my biggest concern is, although I totally agree, senior leadership is good, but it's a pyramid. So there aren't going to be many. But where I think there is a real opportunity and where we need to more, do more is on the professoriate. We need to see more professors because they are our senior leaders as well. I don't think, clearly Vice Chancellors and Pro Vice Chancellors have a significant leadership responsibility, but in terms of impact within the university, within their peer group, within the student body, I think more diversity we have in the professoriate would be good, but we are not there yet. And again, we're doing a number of things in Leicester and the reason I think again it's a long-term commitment. So the example I give, Eric, is that if you want to create a professor, you need to get them to do the PhD. Then if if in the science medicine area they need to do a postdoc for a few years, then a lectureship, and then move through the ladders to become a professor. It's a good ten, fifteen years. 

Sir Eric Thomas: Yes, I remember it well, Nishan. I remember Shirley Tilghman when she was President of Princeton University. If they got to a shortlist of a professor's job and there wasn't a woman on the shortlist, she would simply say, and they'd say we couldn't find a woman of suitable quality, she would say go away and find one, I'm not taking this any further forward until you've found one. And, you know, maybe, maybe that's where senior leadership comes in a bit about the, the other thing that always struck me when I lived in Leicester was it's you may remember the geographies of Bristol. The geographers used to say the geography was the beginning, the middle, and the end of everything. They used to joke with us. It is actually almost in the middle of England, less than two hours from anywhere. That's right. It's actual geography as a place means that, you know, you're two hours to London, you're two hours to Newcastle, you're two hours to, you know, the capacity to collaborate and be central, in actually that quite substantial central belt of universities, is quite powerful. Do you think the Midlands recognises that? 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah:  It does, it does. In fact, an interesting anecdote we recently discovered, one of the largest Roman mosaics in Leicester, archaeology discovered it and I was quite interested and I said, why was there a big Roman settlement in Leicester? And the answer was exactly what you said. It was in the middle of everything, everybody. They had to go through the Midlands to go where they wanted to go and that kind of history still is there. But I think Midlands has grown much bigger now. I think we have within Midlands, we have West Midlands and East Midlands. So I think the geography has changed a lot. Nowadays we use modern transport, so I think it's somewhat changed but it still feels heart of the UK. It's still a place, as you said, I find it very easy to go anywhere in the UK because it is centrally located. It is also quite attractive for student recruitment because when students want to go to a university, the parents don't want them to be too far, but equally, they want to be, so I think Leicester is in the convenient location they can all make two hour journey and get to Leicester and pick their son or daughter up, whenever they want to.

Sir Eric Thomas: I mean, it was, you did touch upon it because one of the other things I was thinking of, you know, it's part of the job of the Vice Chancellor to get out there and go overseas and see, you know, the alumni often, but often, of course, industry. And you'll have a different, you'll almost have a reverse diaspora if you see what I mean. You have a diaspora that goes out to places where they'll they'll be linking strongly because their culturally linked and that's what I wondered about. Is that how you find it?

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: In terms of the local population or the student population? 

Sir Eric Thomas: Well, you know, maybe maybe I mean, I don't know how much leakage there is back to, in inverted commas, the country of of ethnic origin from Leicester back out to, you know, Southeast Asia.

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: It's not much I would say it's, I think what I see happening is slightly different in the sense that the local diaspora is very keen to make links with their own countries. So for example, we have good links in Uganda, Kenya, India, because they want to connect with those communities. But I think that is still, that is there at the moment. What I'm not sure is whether that will last in another fifty years time when it's the second or the third generation who are driving them forward. At the moment, the first generation is still keen to retain those links. So I think one thing, that I think, paradoxically, the challenge for Leicester, in my view, is that because we are centrally located, it's easy for people in Leicester when they graduate, to go somewhere else, and retain the links with Leicester. They will never lose touch with Leicester if they go to Birmingham or London or Manchester, they can easily be in contact with their communities because so easily accessible. So the challenge that I'm kind of thinking through at the moment with Leicester is how much of it I want to retain in Leicester, how much of it is okay for me to go outside Leicester, and I don't have an answer to that question unfortunately, but that's the challenge that I'm grappling with, because on the one hand I want to develop the local economy, I want, in medicine that's not an issue, they work at the local hospitals, and so on. In other sectors, if I want to retain the workforce, how much do I want to retain in Leicester and how much I don't mind going to London and making connections for us in London or Birmingham and Manchester? 

Sir Eric Thomas: So do you find, I mean, do you find significant antipathy to your ambitions? I mean, or actually, are you now pushing on an open door? I mean, I think the world, the world has changed in the last twenty to thirty years, vastly, and I would rather hope that you more felt that the door was open now than it was, you know, only ajar. Is that a fair comment?

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: No certainly you're right, the door is open. But equally, I think, you know, when you want to make change, it's not going to be universally popular, always going to be some communities affected by it. So just to give you one example, and I'm sharing this because I grappled with this myself. So if I take Leicester about 54%, 55% of our students are from the ethnic minority group. But in our staff body, when I joined, it was about 12%, now it's gone up to about 20%. Because I wanted to see how we can reflect, our staff workforce reflect the student body. But then if I'm a member of staff working here at, I would naturally ask the question, what does that mean in a few years time? Does that mean people like me will not have a job here because this university wants to diversify? That means there are less jobs for white staff?

Sir Eric Thomas: Yes. 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: I work on the principle that we need to work on fair recruitment, but equally we need to be creative in how do we address that challenge? How do we create these opportunities? So to answer your question, majority of the people that I speak to are very excited and want to move in the direction they think is the right thing to do. And I, being from an ethnic minority with the lived experience of some of the challenges, in a better position to see what the opportunities are and challenges are. But equally, I'm very mindful that we need to think about solutions for other communities as well. Who might think of this as this means less opportunity for me. It's the narrative that we define, get the right balance between, this is an opportunity for all. It's not about, yes, there is a deficiency which we want to fix, but that should not be at the expense of somebody else. And then you create a different set of tensions within your community. 

Sir Eric Thomas: Absolutely. We did ask you to bring an object, either metaphorically or physically. Did you bring one? 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: I did, but I was struggling to be honest. I was really struggling because I was thinking at one point, it should be a book because I love learning and that's what got me to this position, always I was curious. And I was struggling and then I only brought this. It sounds boastful, but I don't want you to think that, these are three gold medals I received when I was at school. 

And the reason I bring it is that, not because that's the only thing that I worry about, it's just that I've always wanted to be the best at what I do. I always wanted to do whatever I can, just push myself to the limit. Perhaps that's why it explains I, how I've been able to kind of get to this position, maybe. But I always wanted to do the very best I can and not that I want to compete and win all the time, but I just wanted to kind of push the boundaries in everything I did. 

Screenshot 2022-12-16 at 16.05.18

Sir Eric Thomas: As your ex-boss I can tell you that was always very obvious, Nishan. I suppose we should let the listener into the secret that we had the most wonderful trip to India back in 2008. Six or seven of us going round India, seeing places. It's still part of my legendary remembrance of my life. And the other thing is, I have to remind you that, of course, you are actually only doing your second career because your first career ambition was to open the batting for Sri Lanka, if I remember rightly. 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: I think every Sri Lankan hopes ones day they'll be a national cricket star. 

Sir Eric Thomas: Nishan, it's been an absolute pleasure to meet up again and talk to you and to talk about a really, really important subject. And to congratulate you on your leadership in this area and carry on the good work, as they say. 

Prof Nishan Canagarajah: Thank you very much, Eric. It's been a pleasure talking to you. It's great to be able to connect with you again. 


Watch the full interview, here.  

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