Prof Deirdre Heenan: 'Many want women at the ironing board, not the executive board'
The expertise of the Provost of the University of Ulster Magee and Coleraine is equally valued in the fields of politics and academia. She talks to Claire McNeilly
Q. You're currently the University of Ulster's Pro Vice Chancellor of Communication. What does that role involve on a day-to-day basis?
A. Essentially I see myself as having three jobs. I'm PVC of Communication and Provost of Magee and Coleraine. PVC of Communication means leading the university's strategy and policy in PR, media relations and brand, while a Provost is the senior academic on a particular campus responsible for overseeing its physical and strategic development.
Q. Was being appointed the first female Provost of Magee college in 2011 a big deal for you?
A. Becoming a Provost was a big deal because it felt like an achievement and a huge honour to be the figurehead of a campus.
Q. Was that always your ambition?
A. I grew up in Annaclone, on a very rural family farm. I was a complete country bumpkin in fact. When we went to the metropolis of Banbridge they would say here come the boglanders.
I wanted to be a private investigator because the novels we were reading such as Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes – it all sounded so great, why would you not?
Brilliant minds, they had a cunning spirit and were intrepid investigators, no matter what barriers were put in their way, they came to the truth in the end. Also my father came from America, so when everyone else at school was watching Grange Hill, we were watching Magnum PI, Hill Street Blues and all those American detective programmes.
Q. Your mother sent you to Protestant school even though you're Catholic. Should Northern Ireland's education system be integrated?
A. If you have a society where you're educated separately then it's possible to go through life until adulthood without mixing, meeting or socialising with someone of the 'other' religion. Therefore it's hardly surprising that we have a divided society.
Q. Is the Northern Ireland education system failing the next generation?
A. We're living in a period of unprecedented technological change and we need to ensure the educational system prepares young people for work and equips them to succeed in life. In Northern Ireland we have been obsessing on the question of academic selection, yet many children are failing at basic English and Maths.
There's a need to ensure young people can gain a foothold in an increasingly competitive job market and that means offering an appropriate mix of apprenticeships, foundations degrees and postgraduate opportunities. Having a degree is no longer enough which is why at the University of Ulster, we are determined to ensure all students have opportunities for work placement and we actively encourage volunteering.
Q. Did you always have an interest in politics?
A. Even from post-primary school I had an interest in politics in the wider sense, the role of the state – should man be responsible for his own destiny, in other words, if you earn money should you be allowed to keep it?
The interest in social and economic history, the role of the state, when did the state decide they would take responsibility for health and education. I always found that fascinating. More recently I have been researching political systems.
Q. What was the first thing you studied at university?
A. I studied social policy at the University of Ulster so that really is health, education and government. They are three things I am still engaged in.
The National Health Service is a huge issue, not only in the UK but health systems across the world are coming under increasing pressure, people are now trying to figure out how we develop a system which is sustainable when we are living so much longer.
Q. Is the NHS as an organisation sustainable?
A. I was on the Training Your Care team so of course I am going to have to say that is a road map for the future and could make it sustainable. It's such a large, complicated system and so many things need to happen, not least people taking responsibility for their own health.
If you look at many of the things we are spending so much money on, these are things people can manage themselves such as obesity, 21st century problems.
Q. Is the onus on people to take care of themselves?
A. I think in Transforming Your Care, there was a definite direction to say people need to be empowered to look after their own health, to have an understanding and be better educated around what is good for you – health-promoting behaviours – and I do think people have to take greater responsibility for their own healthcare.
Q. Have you stayed with the University of Ulster throughout your career?
A. Yes, I have been out on placement but largely it has been the University of Ulster. Initially I chose the University of Ulster at Coleraine because where I lived, Belfast was quite close whereas to go to the north west was somewhere different.
It was away from home and meant there would not be an expectation that I would travel home at the weekends. That seemed to be a good idea at the time, going into the unknown.
Q. What path did you take after your BA?
A. I decided to stay in further education and did a PhD in policy, then after that got a job as a researcher. As a researcher you also teach a little. I had a sister and friends who were teachers and they said to me, 'how can you teach, you don't know how to teach'. Which I thought was a fair point, so I went back and did a postgraduate teaching certificate then a Masters in education.
Q. Do you believe a BA is adequate to prepare young people for the workplace?
A. At the University of Ulster we believe in lifelong learning, whilst we will have people who come along and do BAs, they may leave to get a job but invariably we see them coming back to us at some stage. That may be for a very short period of time but I think the key thing we are now realising is that it is not enough to leave with a degree and nothing else.
Employers nowadays expect students to come out more rounded. Our unique selling point is our promotion of work placements, workplace learning and internships. Those ensure that students have skills they can use for the rest of their lives because the reality is if you go to university tomorrow the actual knowledge that you gain will be superseded by the time you leave university.
Theories will have changed, new things will have happened, particularly if you look at our students in the areas of ICT and technology. It is moving at breakneck pace. I think it is incumbent on us to ensure that the students have the generic skills that will equip them for life and citizenship.
Q. Can most young people afford to stay on at university these days since they now pay their own fees?
A. Employability is a huge agenda at the moment. We are ensuring that we are equipping our students for careers and we are ensuring that they are employable and that their chances of employability are enhanced as far as possible.
We can now expect to live until we are 85, are we really saying that formal education should stop at 21? My view is you are learning every day, you are learning new skills. I think the way the world is at the moment with the access to information we have, people want to know things. So we would see an increase in people coming back to do 12-week courses.
You might say they don't have to do that, it's not compulsory for their career, but there is a thirst for knowledge. The other thing we are trying to change is promoting entrepreneurship and saying to students, it's not about coming along and saying where can I get a job, it might be about creating a job, or creating 10 jobs.
That involves a completely different mindset. I think in Northern Ireland we are quite socialised into the view that you go to school, do well, go to university and get a good job. The world is not like that anymore.
On average now people have three careers. In the last 10 years, there has been a huge shift within universities to employability, not least the fact that students are now paying their fees and they want to know what they are going to get out of this.
Q. Is a university education affordable for all or do we risk moving back to it being for the elite who have money?
A. In Northern Ireland it is commendable that we have kept fees low, and that we have endeavoured to ensure that people who have the ability will have the opportunity to access higher education. Otherwise it becomes elitist.
Students do not pay fees up front so we encourage people to think of it almost more as a graduate tax because you pay it back when you start earning a certain amount. I certainly wouldn't want to see a situation where people are deciding not to further their studies because of the cost.
In Northern Ireland, people tend to be more debt-averse than other regions of the UK so that is a particular worry. Universities work hand-in-hand with schools to give people an understanding of what the financial implications are.
Q. What is it like to be a woman in a male- dominated world?
A. The media has and will forever interlink successful women's accomplishments with their physical appearance no matter what area they are in. A successful woman will invariably be judged on what she looks like. Even in 2014, it's a habit the media find hard to shake.
It's commenting on a woman's hair, shoes, diet and her body in a way which would seem irrelevant about a man.
So women's accomplishments become diminished so her contribution to a political debate is also appreciated to a lesser degree because the focus is on what she looks like. The cause that they are trying to champion becomes secondary to how you appear.
Women in business, academia, politics would share that view. During the Haass talks, he was portrayed as a very serious man with gravitas whereas Meghan O'Sullivan was portrayed in a cheerleader role. She didn't have a role in her own right and the commentary was always 'the stunning Meghan O'Sullivan' etc. There was a commentary on her shoes one day, and I thought she's the co-chair but you wouldn't think so.
Q. Is it a hindrance to be attractive?
A. It's a double-edged sword. We'll see it very much come to the forefront when Hillary Clinton moves forward with her ambitions to be the first woman president. There will be discussions about her love of trouser suits, her hair, the fact the media says she is brittle. You just don't have those discussions about men. Same with Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful women in the world, and the discussions tend to revolve around her "dowdiness".
I still think there are many people in today's society who would really prefer to see bright, vivacious and intelligent females behind an ironing board than on an executive board because in their mind, that is really where they should be. Some people just find it difficult to compute.
Q. Have you ever been approached by a political party to run for election?
A. Yes, I have been approached and while it is very flattering and whilst I am fascinated by politics, I just simply would not be attracted to Northern Ireland politics for the simple tribalism reason. I would be attracted to politics because of policies, but I, I imagine like many people in Northern Ireland, get frustrated from the green and orange and the them and us. That's what keeps many people out of politics who otherwise would be attracted to politics. I have a colleague who worked with me for many years and was passionate about politics. She is now an MP in the north of England because she wanted to pursue her love of politics but didn't feel she could do it here.
But like I say to my students, I wouldn't rule anything out.
Q. You were joint winner of IN! magazine's Most Stylish Professional award in 2011. How did you feel about the accolade?
A. I was very surprised but delighted because I'm interested in fashion. It's fun and interesting and I don't think there's any contradiction between being a successful professional and wanting to look as well as I possibly can. I know some people think that if you're interested in one you couldn't possibly be interested in the other, but that's nonsense. Most women in professional working environments want to look well because it helps to give you confidence.
Q. You're working on a book (your sixth) on integration and health and social care. You had success with a book called Social Work in Northern Ireland: Conflict and Change. Summarise that.
A. The University of Ulster provides the training for social workers. I taught on that course for years and became aware that there wasn't a text book that set out how social work in Northern Ireland is different because of the environment our social workers are working in.
Q. You're the only Northern Ireland resident who's a member of the Irish President's Council of State. What does that role involve?
A. It's a seven-year appointment. When a new president comes along seven people are chosen as advisors. We've only had one formal meeting to date and that was around the changes to the abortion law. Just being in the same room with the taoiseach, tanaiste, Attorney General etc. was humbling.
Through this role, I asked the president to give his first lecture at Magee Campus, which was wonderful. He also gave a lecture on the economy as part of UK City of Culture in Londonderry last year.
It's the best job I've ever had because you get invited to the best events and you don't do an awful lot of work. The president has a lot of garden parties and commemorations and you get the opportunity to attend these, which is an honour. Also, being invited to Windsor Castle recently to meet the Queen and chat to her was a bit surreal.
It was one of those things where you actually have to take a step back and ask yourself if it's actually happening. It was a wonderful experience and part of history.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Black