She said: “Higher education has changed. It is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity.”
Professor Heenan, who is Dean of Academic Development at the Magee campus, was delivering a Lenten address as one of several prominent Northern Ireland figures who have been invited to speak there during Lent.
She said old notions that stereotype some schools and their pupils have to be abandoned, and higher education should celebrated and supported as the cornerstone of a vibrant and equitable community.
Society must grasp the reality that all should be encouraged to achieve their utmost, rather than be pigeonholed by their background. The days when national wealth and wellbeing depended on resources such as coal and oil are long gone, she said. Countries that will thrive in the future are those that base their growth today on knowledge, and the knowledge economy.
In the current climate of public spending cuts, universities were again being seen as a soft target. But that would be a foolish and self-defeating action.
“The country that has the skills and knowledge is the country that will move forward. The country that slashes spending on the very resources that nurtures and produces that talent will not.”
Professor Heenan said that before 1945, just two percent of the population in Britain went to university.
Since then, there had been a dramatic increase in numbers in higher education, extending into the current era of the Labour government’s target of 50 per cent participation in higher education.
“That target has caused a lot of controversy because some voices argue that too many people are going to university and they ask 'Do all these people need to go to university and what is the point of them going?' My response to them is that the real challenge is this: not that there is no room at the top for these people, but that there is no room at the bottom. The more people we move up, the better.
"There is plenty of room at the top."
“We have been held back by this belief that ‘more’ somehow means dumbing-down and lower standards, but there is absolutely no evidence to support that.
"What we should be concentrating on is the fact that there is a pool of untapped talent out there, particularly in a region like this, and we should be encouraging people to go as far as they can go.”
Professor Heenan said: “We have a moral and social obligation to ensure that people who can go to university are able to do so. If we are truly interested in social justice, we have to address what is really a shamefully low level of social mobility.
“Our ideas of social justice tend to be something that is an add-on at the margins. What we at the University of Ulster have done is to put widening participation at the core of our activities – and our continuing efforts have been successful at many levels.”