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Higgins graduated in social administration from the University of York in 1971 and has held academic posts at the University of Portsmouth, University of Southampton (where she was professor of social policy) and University of Manchester (where she was professor of health policy, from 1992, and director of the Manchester Centre for Healthcare Management 1998-2004. From 2002-03 she was president of the European Health Management Association.
- Chair, of the NHS Litigation Authority 
- Member (since 2005) of the QC Appointments Panel
- Chair, Federal Working Group The Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health on complementary therapy
- Chair (since 2001), Patient Information Advisory Group (PIAG) in the Department of Health
- Chair, Ethics Advisory Group, NHS Care Record Development Board
- Chair, Christie NHS Trust 2002-2007
- Chair, NHS regional office for the North West
- Chair, Manchester Health Authority
- Honorary fellow of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine
- Honorary fellow of the Institute of Health Record Information and Management
- Emerita professor of health policy at the University of Manchester
- "Alumni New Years honours". Grapevine. Alumni Office, University of York (Spring 2007): 4.
- "Dame Joan opens the secret door". Daily Telegraph. 11 October 2007.