Wartime heroines shaped my life, says first female leader of Yorkshire university

After being inspired by wartime nursing heroics from members of her family Professor Shirley Congdon was determined to follow in the footpaths of her heroines in healthcare. Since then she has gone onto to be a trailblazer in higher education including becoming the first female to take the vice-chancellor role at the University of Bradford. Ruth Dacey reports.

She was born in the small mining village of Blackhall Colliery in Durham in 1961, and inspired at a young age after hearing memories from her great aunts Gladys and Ann Hartley, who were nurses during and after World War Two, Professor Congdon went onto qualify as a nurse in 1982.

Fast forward 38 years, as the first women to hold the vice-chancellor role at the University of Bradford and as a leading voice for universities in a regional economic and business think-tank, she has her sights set on leading the way for equality and diversity and challenging the structural issues in society that hold people back.

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The 59-year-old said she had always been determined to work in healthcare, an aspiration which was cemented during secondary school work experience at Hartlepool General Hospital while helping on a ward for elderly patients in 1977.

Pictured, Professor Shirley Congdon. Since qualifying as a registered nurse she has gone onto to be a trailblazer in higher education including becoming the first female to take the vice-chancellor role at the University of Bradford. Photo credit: Tony Johnson/ JPIMediaResell

Prof Congdon said: “My family members who worked as nurses during and after the war became significant people in my life. I listened to their experiences during family visits and was amazed about what they had done.”

She added: "I wanted a career where I would be working with people and trying to make a difference. When people are in vulnerable situations and they are not well that level of connectedness you get with them when trying to support them is really rewarding."

During her three years training to become a nurse she said she was deeply affected by experiences she had in hospitals and mental health institutions in Durham and Hartlepool. This included work in Winterton Hospital in County Durham, a mental health institution which has since been demolished after services transferred as part of a move to create mental health community services and acute mental health services in units in general hospitals.

Prof Congdon said it was a time when wards were locked and people were in these institutions, which were still referred to by many as “the bins,” for most of their lives.

Pictured, the University of Bradford vice-chancellor Shirley Congdon. Photo credit: Tony Johnson/ JPIMediaResell

She said: “It was still the time when people with mental health difficulties were significantly stigmatised.

“A lot of people were institutionalised... and would end up spending all their lives there.”

The mother-of four entered the world of academia as a lecturer practitioner after being the first in her family to go to university. Prof Congdon completed a diploma, degree, masters degree and teachers qualification part-time over five years, while working, from Teesside University, the University of Durham and later the University of Bath.

She said: “My real motivation to want to go on and study in higher education was to try and improve the quality of patient care and at that time evidence based practice and research in healthcare was really in its infancy.”

Professor Shirley Congdon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford praised the incredible contribution of the city in the fight against COVID-19 across Yorkshire, including the earlier deployment of more than 400 of midwives, paramedics and other healthcare students into frontline healthcare roles. Photo credit:

Before taking over the role as the University of Bradford vice-chancellor from predecessor Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Cantor, last summer, she had previously worked in higher education for 28 years, including time in a number of senior leadership roles, before joining Bradford as dean of health studies in 2009.

Speaking about what attracted her to Yorkshire and Bradford she said: “It was a real opportunity for me to come and make a difference.

“Yorkshire itself is an amazing county, there’s lots of diversity and it really is a great county to live in. “No one can ever take away the beauty of the county. It has such different aspects to offer from the Yorkshire Dales through to the great cities and the incredible culture and heritage it has.”

With significant expertise in health and social care, cultural change and evidence practice Prof Congdon is a leading voice for the NHS Yorkshire and Humber regional leadership council and the Royal College of Nursing. She is also playing a major role in universities unlocking her area’s economic potential after recently being appointed to the Leeds City Region’s Local Enterprise Partnership.

New and current students from University of Bradford and universities across Yorkshire would be crucial in playing their role in the recovery of the coronavirus pandemic, said Professor Shirley Congdon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford.Photo credit: PA

She said: “The recovery plans going forward for the region must acknowledge that we have got to double our efforts to address serious inequalities across this country.

“Universities are definitely important to this need to have inclusive growth. Universities ‘power-up the North’ through research, innovation, and developing graduates with higher level skills that can contribute to further innovation in business and industries."

The coronavirus pandemic is at the fore in any discussion of future plans and the vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford praised the “incredible contribution” of the city in the fight against COVID-19 across Yorkshire, including the earlier deployment of more than 400 of midwives, paramedics and other healthcare students into frontline healthcare roles.

Prof Congdon, who has written a letter to each student to individually thank them for their heroic efforts, said: “They have worked under quite extreme and intense environments. We are really proud of them.”

She added new and current students from University of Bradford and universities across Yorkshire would be “crucial” in playing their role in the recovery of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need universities even more in a post-covid world. The skills students will develop mean they can go out and contribute to solving problems like Covid-19 and other future pandemics,” Prof Congdon said.

The teaching term for the University of Bradford will begin on October 5, with smaller group learning going ahead face-to-face while teaching with larger groups will still be done online, while some of the universities researchers are back working in labs since restrictions have eased recently.

Prof Congdon said: “It’s been a case of flipping the classroom - not being in lecture theatres but presenting debate and discussion and problem solving in a different way.

“Universities have to be agile, and be able to pivot back to a different mode of delivery.”

She added the city should "learn from Leicester" - after a prolonged lockdown for the city was announced on 29 June after a spike in Covid-19 cases, with non-essential shops and schools closed.

“With concerns around local lockdowns and risk of following suit from Leicester for Bradford we are deliberately designing everything around the possibility that we may have to pivot,” Prof Congdon said.

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