The Interview Ireland
Maynooth University
VP for Equality and Diversity

Dr Gemma Irvine

Universities that are passionate about their global standing and how they form relationships with other institutions are often able to enhance their student experience offering as well — whether this is through the benefits of an increased campus and learning environment, or the international connections that are granted to students.

Dr Gemma Irvine, Vice President (VP) for Equality and Diversity at Maynooth University (MU) sat down with Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, to discuss her expertise in gender, her role providing sanctuary to academics fleeing conflict, and more.

Gemma's Journey

Kira: Can you tell me a bit about your work and how you got there?

I’m VP for Equality and Diversity at the national university of Ireland in Maynooth (MU). I used to work in the Higher Education Authority, which has oversight of all the Higher Education (HE) institutions. I had responsibility for research, enhancement of teaching and learning, international education and gender equality (as it was at the time). I was fortunate to work with the former EU Commissioner for research and innovation on the first national review of gender inequality in HE. That was the first time we’d had data and evidence to look at the system as a whole.

I had experience working on large change management initiatives, and I like the challenge of working with people to open their awareness to a different way of doing things. Especially, a better way, that benefits more people. In Ireland, we started with gender equality, and the EDI portfolio has expanded from that.

Kira: How has your work translated to the university in terms of the work you’re doing with students?

The benefit of my experience is that I’ve seen a breadth of good practice initiatives across the HE sector. When I work with students, I see it as a multi-level approach. It’s not just their time in a lecture, it’s their time walking across campus and after class activities. Their first interaction with the university could be with the cleaning or security staff — everyone needs to know about equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), because every interaction is an opportunity for retention. We’re focusing more broadly beyond just the student-teacher relationship.

Kira: University leaders often talk about creating a sense of belonging – can you tell me a bit about this work?

We’ve put in place quite a few different initiatives. A lot of our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds; so we put in place a student budgeting advisor to help support people and signpost the supports available.

During Covid, we found a real divide in our students between those that had a safe space to study at home compared to those that didn’t. We introduced a laptop loan scheme for those that needed it. It’s also about recognising that for many, college is a safe haven that people use to step away from whatever else might be causing them stress in their life. We have a big focus on supporting mental health. That sense of being disconnected from academic courses can be really impactful on someone’s learning, so we try to combat this by putting additional supports in place.

That sense of being disconnected from academic courses can be really impactful on someone’s learning, so we try to combat this by putting additional supports in place.  

Visibility is really important. All HE institutions have an issue with representation in teaching and administrative staff. In our orientation, we ensure that our first interaction with students is one of inclusion. For example, we partner with the Meath Travellers Workshop, they bring a caravan on campus, showcase their language and talk with students about the historical skills that are being passed on from generation to generation. For those that feel they have to hide that part of their identity, having such an overt celebration of their culture makes them feel they can bring their whole self to campus.

Kira: You mentioned that you provide sanctuary scholarships to refugees. Could you elaborate on this?

We’re designated as a University of Sanctuary — welcoming refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants. We provide scholarships for students in the direct provision system who don’t have access to state support. We’re also very active with Scholars At Risk — their work is international and aims to promote academic freedom and protect those that have been forced to flee their country. Currently, we’re hosting a scholar from Afghanistan.

We also welcomed 1,200 displaced Ukrainians to come and stay on our campus during summer while our student accommodation was vacant. We’re also the host of the National Student and Researcher Helpdesk, which was set up by the government to provide support for those that want to continue their HE studies and research in Ireland.

Kira: We also speak to a lot of interviewees about safety on campus. Your background is in gender, could you speak a bit about this issue and how it comes into your work?

We’re lucky that we have engaged ministers that have really taken issues of gender equality to heart, and put in place reporting structures nationally. We have in place a Consent Framework that aims to address sexual violence and harassment on campus. Maynooth is required to report annually on our progress under the framework; and one of our academics was one of the experts that sat on that committee to develop the framework.

We have a strong focus on awareness raising, for example, during orientation, we offer consent classes to all students and work closely with our Student’s Union to host events that aim to develop awareness of consent, and how to put it into practice.

3 Quickfire Questions

Kira: What advice would you give to someone entering the HE industry right now?

Don’t try to take on everything all at once. The EDI space has expanded exponentially, there are so many arenas that we need to achieve change in and it can be hard to make an impact if you spread yourself too thin.

Kira: Who do you admire the most in HE?

Professor Eeva Leinonen, our new President. She has extensive experience from around the world. She’s an inclusive, grounded leader who puts students and people first — and also the first female president of our university.

Kira: What is the most important book that you have read?

Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? by Beverley Ann Tatum. It was one of the most powerful influences on my thinking around race. She has so many excellent descriptions of the challenges that are present.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kira Matthews
Community Engagement Lead
Kira leads our community outreach team working hand-in-hand with changemakers on both sides of the pond. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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