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Dr Laknath Jayasinghe: Strengthening India-Australia trade and diplomacy in higher education

22 November 2017
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The Diplomatic Society

This month in a conversation with the Global Editor for The Diplomatic Society Srimal Fernando spoke to Dr Laknath  Jayasinghe, Vice-Dean (Research) (pictured) at Jindal Global Business School (JGBS) in India. In addition to his role as Associate Professor in Marketing, Dr Jayasinghe is Associate Director for the Centre for India-Australia Studies (CIAS) located at the prestigious O. P. Jindal Global University in India.  Previously Dr. Jayasinghe taught at renowned Australian universities such as Monash University and Macquarie University. Australian born Dr. Jayasinghe is passionate about bringing together future leaders of India and Australia--across the political, business, cultural, and policy domains. Laknath gained his PhD in consumer anthropology at the University of Melbourne. His cultural research on Australian families, published in the elite Journal of Consumer Research, was acclaimed by the Marketing Science Institute as one of 16 “must read” scholarly marketing research papers published globally in 2013.

Srimal Fernando (SF): Dr. Laknath Jayasinghe thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Tell us a bit about your background and how that has shaped your path as a scholar?

Dr. Laknath Jayasinghe (LJ): Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you Srimal. My social and professional background, like many local and overseas faculty, I guess, has hugely shaped my path to become a scholar. From a family point of view, my Dad and Mum were married in August 1967 and a week later they emigrated from Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), to Melbourne, Australia—where they currently live. Their arc of migration and subsequent successful settling into Australian social and cultural life has been a defining narrative in my parent’s household. Both my Dad’s and my Mum’s ancestral families were and continue to be involved in social and community service, and this ethic was continually stressed to us as young children in the multicultural Australia in which I was raised. I can certainly point to these as formative influences in my path as a scholar. As well, our exposure to my Dad’s professional life as an obstetrician-gynaecologist in Melbourne, and the upwardly-mobile and professionally-oriented social networks within which we often mixed in Melbourne in our early years, ensured that my parents four children were raised with strong values of academic achievement, empathy, social service, and mutual responsibility. Along the way, I have had the great fortune to move within great cultural-educational institutions and meet key social and professional mentors and advisors who have helped me recognize the complexity of our social and economic world. Here, I’m also acknowledging as strong influences my advisors during my M.Phil at the University of Queensland and my Ph.D at the University of Melbourne, who’ve not only strongly steered both my academic interests around the cultural study of human behaviour and professional values and practices--such as the notion of calculated risk taking, development of humility, and adhering to one’s own values and philosophies--essential for career development and a fulfilling life.

SF:  First of all, it is noteworthy that you have come to O.P. Jindal Global University in India with such an extensive academic and research experience from Australia. What was your first impression about O.P. Jindal Global University?

LJ: My first impressions of OP Jindal Global University were of a new private university on the margins on the Delhi NCR. I remember thinking, when I arrived here for my campus visit in April 2017, that the university represents the sharp and fascinating end of a new, urbane, cosmopolitan, and globally-focused India. To a large extent, I have found that these impressions have remained unchanged over the 4 months I have been here as a fulltime faculty member.

SF:  How would you describe your role as the Vice Dean of Research at   Jindal Global Business School (JGBS)? and why do you believe  your position as Vice Dean will be a good fit for the Business School  at O.P. Jindal Global University?

LJ:  My twin roles as Vice Dean (Research) at JGBS and Associate Director at the University’s India-Australia Studies Centre plays to my strengths of both a developer of research talent and facilitator of partnerships. I would be successful in these roles if I can help both my older and younger faculty to establish and develop the skills, capabilities, and connections that enable them to take their research career wherever they desire. Moreover, these roles present an interesting challenge that is wonderful for not only JGBS, but also JGU and indeed, more broadly, Indian research: to harness my strong interpersonal skills and my close associations in the Australian university sector to develop meaningful and mutually beneficial research and other institutional partnerships between JGU and Australian universities (many of whom are looking to engage with the Indian subcontinent).

SF:  How did your previous experience in Australia prepare you for your current position in India?

LJ:  I’m very fortunate in that I’ve had very solid experience within both the higher education and commercial sectors in Australia. So, for instance, I’ve been able to strategically and fairly easily move in and out of either sector as exciting opportunities are presented that suit my skill, capabilities, and values. From my commercial marketing and brand development background at leading local and global advertising agencies and research consultancies in Australia--such as Mindshare, Mediacom, Forethought Research, and Ward6--I bring an awareness of the need to creatively and materially solve both client and social problems with precision and often within tight deadlines. These days, this is almost always performed from within a collaborative and partnership setting, and with a recognition that negotiation, teamwork, and understanding and bridging difference is necessary to successful business problem solving. From my scholarly background at globally-renowned Australian research powerhouses such as the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne, I bring academic insight, critical thinking, evidence-based decision making, and cross-cultural understanding to bear on my solving of business and scholarly problems of significant social and /or economic value. It is this solid mix of skills, capabilities, and values—of the technical with the interpersonal—that I bring to my current role of university lecturer, researcher, administrator, and partnership developer at Jindal Global University.

SF:  India and Australia are strengthening their trade and diplomatic ties.  Distinguished academics and professors like yourself can be influential advocates for more partnerships between the two countries.  I would appreciate hearing from you.

LJ:  In a way, I see myself as an embodiment of—as you put it—“strengthening trade and diplomatic ties” through the current work I perform in higher education settings. As the world truly shrinks through globalizing processes, we witness two opposing forces: on the one hand we see great rises in the mobility of people, ideas, finance, media images, and technology across various parts of the world. This is often socially and economically productive. On the other hand, we witness the tensions these mobilities and movements induce: the ways that people may be left behind as a result of these policies and processes, and how people attempt to shore back up traditional identities and cultural practices as a rearguard action.

I think global education, in this case global higher education, has a strong part to play in encountering, understanding, and helping to assuage these tensions in people. So, I see that both inside and out of the JGU classroom, for example, I am simultaneously performing economic labour (trade) and creating cross-cultural awareness and understanding (diplomacy).

I am one of those “globally-mobile knowledge professionals” loved by migration researchers and policy-makers, imparting skills, developing capabilities, and hopefully modelling sound values to my JGU students. Through this lens, I train students and help them access jobs they desire, be that here in India or in Australia. But perhaps the greater good of my role is in helping to break down tired and unproductive cultural stereotypes, of challenging people who I encounter here—encouraging them to think beyond what they know of Australia and of Australia-India relations (beyond the common tropes of cricket and a colonial heritage), and requesting them to think about how we can collaboratively develop mutually beneficial cross-national and cross-institutional partnerships. Of course, within this process I too am provoked and challenged to shift my preconceptions about India and India-Australia relations! This can only be a good thing.

SF:  Based on global research, nations, culture, and innovations can contribute to higher economic growth rates. If we analyze this carefully what is your opinion on the relationship between cultural diversity and economic performance across neighboring countries of South Asia?

LJ:  I’m glad you asked this, as I’m a big fan of the work of Richard Florida, the American economist now at the Rotman School of Management. Florida and his team at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto are responsible for producing the annual Global Creativity Index (or GCI) that links economic development to the competitiveness and prosperity of a nation. Subsequent studies have found that cultural homogeneity in many cases retards economic growth. The GCI is a “broad-based measure of advanced economic growth”, and is underpinned by a methodology examining the “3Ts of economic development”: talent, technology, and tolerance. The GCI measures a nation’s level of cultural diversity by examining its level of tolerance to cultural minorities. Tolerance as measured by the GCI is grounded in a nation’s level of openness to two elements of cultural diversity: (1) racial/ethnic diversity and (2) sexual diversity. There is much work coming out now that attempts to place these ideas within a South Asian context. The GCI presents great challenges and has huge implications for the sorts of cities and nations envisioned by South Asian politicians, policy-makers, citizens, and other key stakeholders.

On the one hand, South Asian nations such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are ranked very favorably in terms of their openness to ethnic diversity (ranked 7, 10, and 16 respectively in terms of ethnic openness); yet all three have relatively closed institutions, structures, and societies with regard to sexual diversity (respectively ranked 62, 99, and 117 out of 138 countries). The challenge for policy makers in these nations is how to capitalize on the global movement of labour and talent by creating effective policies and procedures that build societies where cultural diversity (across all manifestations) is valued and harnessed in the service of economic growth.