The heart of education is not in the classroom or in textbooks, but in the relationships and connections forged between people. Damian McAlister, Chief People Officer at Ulster University, has led the way in this regard, overseeing his institution’s groundbreaking efforts in equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).
Chris Mansfield, GoodCourse’s Co-Founder, sat down with Damian to discuss the importance of building an inclusive learning environment, his pioneering work in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and how his experience in the Civil Service and the NHS has informed his work in education.
I’m Chief People Officer at Ulster University. We’re one of four universities in Northern Ireland, with over 27,000 students. We have four campuses across different cities, so we like to consider ourselves Northern Ireland’s regional university.
I’ve been with Ulster since 2018. As Chief People Officer, I’m not only responsible for all our staff, but I also have duties in university governance, academic services, and admissions. So it’s a broad remit, but it’s fundamentally about looking after the people at our institution. Before this, I spent 18 years in the Civil Service and then 13 years in the NHS, all in Northern Ireland. I’ve always loved working with people — listening to them, understanding them, and helping them. The longer you spend in the field, the more you’re exposed to people from different personal and professional backgrounds. For example, when I was in the NHS, I loved working with doctors, nurses, and social workers; now at the university, I’m enjoying working alongside academics, researchers, and administrative staff.
When I was in the Civil Service, my job was to develop policy and deliver public services. It gave me the rigour and discipline needed to understand how policy is created and how it affects people’s lives. Working with government and ministers is a unique experience: it lets you see how things really work behind the scenes. Or in some cases, how it doesn’t work!
My final post in the Civil Service was in the Department of Health, which inspired me to get involved in the NHS. At the Belfast Trust, we had 22,000 staff providing health services across Northern Ireland. People think HR is just a backroom job, but you really get involved in caring for people. I’ve always seen policy, health, and education as a kind of triangle: so when this opportunity came up at Ulster, I didn’t think twice. The last five years have been an adventure — we did have Covid in the middle of it, but otherwise, it’s been enjoyable. It’s so fulfilling to watch people succeed. You never know how far the students can go — you could be sitting in a room with a future titan of industry or a Nobel Prize winner.
Covid impacted everybody in different ways. In February 2020, I remember worrying about what was happening in Italy, hoping it wouldn’t hit us. Within a month, we made the decision to close our campuses. Throughout the pandemic, our first priority was the health of our staff and students. But there were so many challenges to think about: how to deliver online teaching, how to administer exams, and how to support international students. It changed the whole game.
I was very privileged to be asked by the Vice Chancellor to lead our response. But it made sense to me: this was about people, safety, and well-being. Fortunately, we had a robust infrastructure to support our response. We realised that staying at home could be isolating for students and staff, so we introduced a campaign called Keep — keep learning, keep connected, and keep supporting each other. We were all in it together, and people really stepped up. Some of the changes we’ve made have been sustained in the long term; for instance, a lot of work around remote learning can be applied to support students with disabilities. In the end, we found no loss in productivity. I think that’s down to our fantastic staff and the trust we placed in them.
At Ulster, I am responsible for EDI. Inclusion is one of Ulster’s core organisational values. I think it reflects the ideals we all share — integrity, collaboration, and enhancing our potential. In a large university like Ulster, you have students and staff with highly diverse backgrounds. We recognise diversity as an opportunity: it helps us grow, as people as well as an institution.
We recognise diversity as an opportunity: it helps us grow, as people as well as an institution.
Just before Covid, we started some initiatives around gender and LGBT issues. Our student groups have been very involved in organising events: it’s about doing things with students instead of for them. Our BAME network just celebrated its second anniversary, and I’m very proud of its growth. We want this to be a place where people can come as they are and not be judged. We’ve come a long way but can’t lose sight of where we need to go.
It’s about developing a calendar that has something for everyone. We’re seeing students coming to events who might not have attended two years ago. Not to be too trivial, but small incentives go a long way. Food is a great way to engage people. It brings people together, lets them have conversations, and helps break down barriers. We don’t mandate anything, but we encourage everyone to attend.
Lead by example. Develop yourself. My father taught me that every day is a learning day, and I’ve taken that to heart. It’s essential to keep yourself fresh so you can inspire others.