Interview with Alan Finnegan

We talk tours of duty, support for veterans and the travails of following Aston Villa with Chester’s new nursing professor

April 21, 2016
Alan Finnegan, University of Chester

Alan Finnegan is a former UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) professor of nursing who served with the British Army from 1987 until this year. Among other places, he was posted to Iraq, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, South Africa and Afghanistan. Colonel Finnegan has previously served as a nurse consultant in military mental health and as the MoD specialist nursing adviser in mental health. In January, he was appointed professor of nursing and military mental health at the University of Chester.

When were you born and where was home?
I was born in 1960 and spent my formative years in either Dublin or Birmingham. 

How has this shaped you?
My parents were part of the large Irish population that moved to Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s. They were humble and modest, and they instilled a work ethic built on the premise that you get out what you put in. The importance of education as the foundation for personal progression was embedded within this society.

What were your immediate reactions to being offered the position at Chester?
I was delighted! The university has a tremendous reputation and was my first choice for employment upon leaving the army. I am very lucky.

Chester has a centre focusing on veterans’ well-being; is military health something that more academic institutions should be looking at? Is there enough scholarly research in the field?
The UK military community is estimated at 10 million, with veterans comprising 2.8 million. All universities have members of the veteran population within their catchment area, and can take a proactive lead in supporting this population through social engagement. There is plenty of scope for more research.

Do mental health issues within the armed forces manifest themselves differently in separate conflicts?
There are usually mental health implications associated with an operational tour. For the majority, in a volunteer armed forces, the deployment is the reason they enlisted/commissioned, and they report personal growth. However, exposure to a traumatic event can cause distressing mental health symptoms irrespective of the theatre of operations.

Of your various tours, which appeared to be the toughest region/experience for soldiers to cope with mentally?
Each tour presents different challenges. The Airborne Brigade troops that deployed to Rwanda in 1994 were unprepared for the humanitarian catastrophe they faced, while aspects of the Balkans conflict were also very testing. For each soldier, it depends on what they personally experience, so what is an exhilarating deployment for one can be devastating for another.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
I was extremely fortunate to enter a career in nursing, and I wouldn’t swap being a member of this profession for any other. I especially enjoyed clinical practice as a military community mental health nurse. Otherwise, I enjoy being outdoors, so I could quite happily be a builder or a postman.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Offer an opinion only to someone who will take the time to listen.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
I’ve been at Chester for three months, and it’s been all good. I’ve been granted full licence to develop the centre, and I’ve found myself surrounded by a really strong and committed group of colleagues. I’m really enjoying the opportunity to express an opinion that doesn’t have to be screened on multiple levels.

What keeps you awake at night?
The legacy we’re leaving our youth. We’ve made it extremely difficult for our children to establish themselves and to have a high quality of life. Also, the failure to secure senior employment opportunities and positions that reflect the diversity, gender and social make-up of the UK.

What do you do for fun?
I enjoy watching live sport – luckily, so do the family. I especially enjoy a day at National Hunt racing and watching the Dublin Gaelic Athletic Association senior football team. I’m an avid Aston Villa supporter, which unfortunately hasn’t constituted fun for quite a few years. I also really enjoy my work.

What’s your biggest regret?
Soldiers make a decision to join the armed forces, and service families take the brunt of that commitment. My youngest daughter went to five different schools by the time she was nine. My biggest regret is watching the strain on service families, and the lack of support for them.

What advice do you give to your students?
Make the most of the opportunity and enjoy the experience. Personal characteristics defined as a student will help to shape future careers: [these include] staying on top of the workload, producing the best work possible and being reliable.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
A lack of recognition of the personal growth associated with a military career, and a common misconception that operational service will inevitably result in mental health problems. There is also a lack of understanding of the term “military veteran” that applies equally to someone who served one day and someone who served 35 years.

What one thing would improve your working week?
People answering emails is always a bonus. On a larger scale, some quarters of the news media providing balanced reporting would be a good start.

If you were the higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I would introduce educational bursaries for veterans’ children, issued on a pro rata basis. The entry criteria would cover veterans who served as regulars for four years, through to meeting the full cost of educational fees for the children of those who served 20 years or more.


Martin Mcginnity has been appointed head of the College of Science and Tech­nology and pro vice-chancellor (student affairs) at Nottingham Trent University. Professor Mcginnity, who is currently dean of the School of Science and Technology, will begin his new role in August. In it, he will provide strategic leadership for the college, covering his own school and the School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences. He will also be responsible for student affairs across the univer­sity, including student support services. “I am delighted to lead such a dynamic and innovative college in a university that has such ambitious plans for the future,” he said.

Sasha Roseneil has been named executive dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Essex. Professor Roseneil joins on 1 September from Birkbeck, University of London, where she is professor of sociology and social theory. Before moving to Birkbeck, where she held numer­ous positions, Professor Roseneil was professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Leeds, where she founded and led the Centre for Inter­disciplin­ary Gender Studies. “I am excited and honoured to be appointed executive dean at Essex,” she said. “Throughout my career, the university has been at the centre of the social sciences in the UK, defining research agendas and educating new gener­ations to think critically and rigorously about politics, economics and social relations.”

Kevin Kerrigan has been appointed dean of the business school and pro vice-chancellor (enterprise) at Sheffield Hallam University. Christina Murray has taken up her position as director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. The University of Sheffield has appointed Nigel Clarke pro vice-chancellor for science. Richard Stephenson has been made deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Salford.

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