The Interview UK
University of Liverpool
Pro Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement

Dinah Birch CBE

With so many women in leading roles in academia today, it can be surprising to remember that some UK universities became coeducational less than fifty years ago.

Dinah Birch CBE, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement at the University of Liverpool, is an example of a woman who forged a career in Higher Education just as important doors were being opened.

GoodCourse universities lead Kitty Hadaway asks Dinah about her outstanding and varied academic career, and what inspires her in her work today.

Dinah's journey

Kitty: What has your journey into Higher Education been like, and how did you get to where you are today?

I suppose I’m not from a very traditional academic background. I grew up on a farm in the East Midlands – I went to a very good village primary school, and then to a good comprehensive school.

I have always had a passion for books. My family were big readers, especially those of us that were women. Living in a rural area, the mobile library was a service that meant a lot to us; in fact, my mother convinced the council to put an extra stop at our farm, just so that our family could order books to borrow.

It was quite a surprise to my family when I applied to study at Oxford, but I wanted to take advantage of the teaching on offer – and the libraries too! I was awarded a place to read English at St Hugh’s College, which was a women’s college in those days, and I loved my time there.

After I graduated, I wanted to go out and explore the world. I completed voluntary work at schools and hospitals in several countries in Africa, which was a great opportunity to develop as a person.

Once I came back to the UK, I decided to get a job in London so that I could earn some money. I worked for a very early computing firm. Even in those days I could see that working in technology would be a fantastic way to earn very good money, but my interest was in literature – I was particularly interested in the work of John Ruskin, and that formed the basis of my postgraduate study.

I’ve been lucky to work in lots of different educational settings. I returned to Oxford as a Junior Research Fellow at Merton College, which meant that I was the first woman to have membership of its governing body. I’ve worked in a number of teaching and research roles since then, with my current job at Liverpool University involving working with different parts of the institution and local organisations to encourage cultural engagement.

Throughout my career, I’ve realised that research is really an ongoing conversation between peers, with mentors and with mentees. You can’t do this sort of work alone; collaboration is really vital, as is taking the opportunity to learn from and teach others.

One of the best things about working with the Open University was that its whole aim was to widen access to Higher Education and change lives directly. Getting to see that in action was very fulfilling.
Kitty: One of the universities you spent time at was the Open University. In today’s landscape, “hybrid learning” is more common than ever - but what was distance teaching like before widespread internet access?

In some ways, things haven’t changed very much! As a full-time Open University employee, I worked closely with a team of other academics to create course materials – cassette tapes, printed materials and TV recordings – that allowed students to learn independently in their own time.

Open University students still got access to face-to-face teaching through Saturday sessions, as well as weekend sessions. Our summer schools were also an important component of many courses, not just for the direct academic benefits, but because many people who studied with us hadn’t spent a lot of time in formal academic settings.

One of the best things about working with the Open University was that its whole aim was to widen access to Higher Education and change lives directly. Getting to see that in action was very fulfilling.

Kitty: Thankfully, we’ve moved past the days when being the first woman to do something in the field of academia was common. How have things changed for women in the Higher Education sector since you were a junior fellow?

There are so many more women in teaching and research roles at top universities now, just as there are more female students. When you’re no longer the minority in a setting, the dynamics change a lot.

Even in my day, though, I didn’t face very much misogyny. There were some men in Merton College’s governing body who were apprehensive about having a woman in such a senior role, but that dissipated quite quickly once I got the chance to demonstrate that I was capable.

The biggest change has been the gradual erosion of the idea that women are better disposed to serving and helping than they are to leadership roles. Sometimes women hold this belief just as strongly as men do, even if not consciously. It has been fantastic to see academics overcome this assumption.

Kitty: You’ve had a very long and successful career. What are some of the achievements that you’re proudest of?

I’m very proud of all of the doctoral students I’ve supervised, who have gone on to successful careers of their own – some in academia, but others in different fields where their skills are just as valuable. It’s always a privilege to be able to work with brilliant young people.

I’m also proud of all the outward-facing work I get to do in my current role as Pro Vice-Chancellor for cultural engagement, such as running our annual short story conversation and chairing the editorial board of The Conversation.

Even though my academic career has been long, it has been very varied too. I’ve had the opportunity to learn, teach, research and lead. It’s fantastic to bring all of those skills together in a senior role such as the one I’m in now.

3 Quickfire Questions

Kitty: What advice would you give to anyone hoping to come into the Higher Education space now?

Be persistent, but also flexible. You can’t plan your career down to the fine details, although it’s very sensible to have an idea of how you will reach your goals! Academia is a constantly changing environment, so you must be able to adapt and know when to rethink your direction.

Kitty: Is there someone you admire who has been an inspiration to you in your work?

Janet Beer, Liverpool’s current Vice Chancellor. She is an excellent example of a good leader – not just for women, but for everyone in Higher Education. She always listens, without losing a sense of her direction and values.

Kitty: What is the most important book that you’ve read in your career?

It’s hard for me to pick just one book, because I love so many – but I would say Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When it came out in 1987, it really opened my eyes to the reality and impact of slavery and its consequences for the world today.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kitty Hadaway
Universities Lead
Kitty is passionate about using technology to create safer and more inclusive campuses, and is an expert on student engagement and delivering training at scale. Get in touch at to learn more.

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