A tribute to the late David Watson from former students

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The sudden and very sad passing of the esteemed David Watson has been met with a profound sense of loss, not just in the UK higher education community but across the world. As former students of David’s on the MBA in Higher Education Management at the UCL Institute of Education, we feel this even more acutely, so used as we became to his great wisdom, humour and generosity.

Pete Woodcock, MBA HEM 2009-11, Lecturer in Politics, University of Huddersfield:

In losing him we have lost one of the key exponents of the study and analysis of Higher Education as a subject in and of itself. In addition to holding many senior posts in higher education, David also researched and wrote extensively on higher education with the mantra that institution self-study and reflection were necessary for the successful university. But David went one step further when he joined likeminded colleagues at the IOE, in delivering the MBA in higher education management. Designed to train leaders in the sector, the programme provided the perfect channel for Sir David (or Professor Sir, as he was secretly and affectionately known by his students) to pass on his expertise and research to enhance the strength of the sector. Consequently, throughout the Higher Education sector in the UK (and, indeed, internationally) there are many people in key positions who were the product of teaching. Those of us who benefitted from David’s tuition on the MBA wanted to reflect upon the key lessons we learned from him, and the memories we had of the time we spent with him.

Alison Kennell, MBA HEM 2009-11, Registrar and Secretary, York St John University:

David skilfully blended the abstractly theoretical with the eminently practical in leading the MBA programme. Much of what he taught was built on ideas and insights he had distilled from his years in the sector and his willingness to listen to its many (and frequently dissonant) voices. This often emerged as ‘common sense tips’ (there were a lot of top 10s!) in plain English that turned, on application in the workplace, to guiding rules of persistent relevance (I for one live by his principle that when you can’t take a big leap, make a small step). MBA students benefitted not just from David’s insights into ‘how to do the day job better’, however. His wisdom fulfilled our search for meaning and value in what we do – his final book, The Question of Conscience’ is a great example of this. The sector will be a much poorer place without David, but we can be hopeful that his ideas and insights will continue to have lasting significance though his many MBA disciples.

Emma Sabzalieva, MBA HEM 2009-11, College Registrar, St Antony’s College, Oxford:

David liked a good list, even better if it had a paradigm or two. He also had a wonderful knack for taking a big or complex subject and somehow making it manageable. In teaching us about university strategy, he distilled the basics into just three points – after making us all write our own institution’s story in 50 words or fewer. A memorable seminar David gave offering 10 lessons for civic and community engagement inspired me to write an essay on universities’ responsibilities to their local communities which was later published and I have continued to retain an interest in how universities engage on a local, national and global level. David enriched not just my vocabulary with phrases like ‘creative temporary cross-subsidy’ and with comparisons that still stick in the mind (my favourite being ‘Nintendo over logic’ to understand what he called generational fracture) but also enhanced my understanding of how higher education works and why universities are such special places. David himself was a very special man who shared his great humour and wisdom generously with everyone who had the privilege of meeting him.

Professor Sir David Watson

David Watson when he was Deputy Director of Oxford Polytechnic. Image: Steve Maybury/Oxford Brookes.

Liz Marr, MBA HEM 2008-10, Director, Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships , Open University:

Reading David’s books is like listening to him speak. His use of language, his imagery, his incredible breadth and depth of knowledge, his seemingly inexhaustible supply of ‘war stories’ and his ability to make all this accessible to the widest audiences made him unique as an educator. I learned many things from him but there are three which often come to mind while trying to do the day job. In Finance 1, I learned that getting the money right was a ‘necessary but not sufficient ground for success’. I treat this as a reminder rather than a rule but I am now more attuned to the bottom line and like to stress to others that most of the money at our disposal comes directly or indirectly from students. Perhaps a little more apocryphal, but I also vividly remember his tale about the vice chancellor who had three trays on his desk – ‘in’, ‘out’ and ‘too hard’. It is comforting and encouraging to know that even those at the top of the ladder still struggle. And finally to his ‘ten commandments’ which really mark him for the man he was. Of these, my favourite is ‘Do no harm’, but with the rest

(Strive to tell the truth, Take care in establishing the truth, Be fair, Always be ready to explain, Do no harm, Keep your promises Respect your colleagues, and especially your opponents, Sustain the community, Guard your treasure, Never be satisfied) we have a damn fine list to work with.

Rachel Forsyth, MBA HEM 2008-10, Principal Lecturer for Curriculum Development and Innovation, Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, Manchester Metropolitan University:

I think the most important thing I learned from observing David is that everybody in the organisation deserves a bit of your time. He had a way of being able to give his attention and contribute something to your thinking, however brief the encounter, and however important and senior he might have seemed to the person he was talking to. He was also brilliant at identifying someone’s key character traits, even when that person thought he couldn’t possibly have noticed them. He demonstrated something more than the advice in his top ten to ‘respect your colleagues’: it was ‘care about your colleagues’, and he demonstrated it, day in and day out.

Jo Lakey, MBA HEM 2008-10, Research Policy Manager, UCL Institute of Education:

David taught us to question rhetoric and to think about issues from different perspectives. Whether he was questioning the use of the phrase “world class” in higher education literature, or telling us cautionary tales about the relevance of league tables, he was an inspirational and engaging teacher. He was hugely knowledgeable about so many things – during residential weeks for the MBA he would have read the morning papers and formulated his opinions before most of us had properly woken up. I feel incredibly lucky to have been taught by him.

Douglas Hajek, MBA HEM 2008-10, Director, Prague College:

David embodied an optimism tempered with an uncompromising search for evidence, data and incisive analysis. He also loved a good anecdote and in his honour I would like to add a few. First, we were waiting on orders after dinner at Lancaster in 2009 and David remarked that the MBA was about to produce its 100th graduate. I told him that in just over a year there would be enough graduates for every VC post in the country. His eyes sparkled, but the truth is that UK HE could do an awful lot worse than having a whole generation of leaders inspired by him. Second was an early morning at IOE when we met in the corridor on the way to the day’s first session. Before I could say a word, he leapt forward with a beaming smile and told me that Teesside, the university we do collaborative provision with in Prague, had won university of the year the night before. He was genuinely appreciative and inspired by the success of others, and of course, he had himself, that same evening, been honoured with the lifetime achievement award. Thankfully I knew this and was able to congratulate him in return. He believed fervently in the university, education, and in people and students. In his written work and lectures, he could take enormous complicated themes and distill them into a clear and simple structure. Great conflicts dissolved as he showed where opposing sides shared common values and where they differed. In the end, he would often say, we should trust our students (more?). He always did.

Axel Miller MBA HEM, 2008 -11, Acting Director, Scottish Association for Marine Science:

My experiences of David are, I suspect, similar to colleagues on the MBA programme. He was such an engaging, powerful, charming tutor: seamlessly harmonising ironic wit with biting intellectual challenge. I should like to reflect here, though, a great debt which could never be repaid. Not the strongest student in my cohort (!), I travelled to the IoE mid-course to withdraw, confidence in tatters, energy at zero. Whilst explaining this to Caroline, David appeared and questioned my obvious glumness. Without further ado he guided me into a quiet office, imparted an intangible, yet penetrating energy, and explored a whole range of options for completion. Within minutes, he led me back to Caroline to confirm that this was a mere blip, and that all would be well. When I eventually managed to graduate, I wrote to David to express my thanks and deep appreciation for his support; only to receive a reply explaining that he really hadn’t done anything at all. So, whilst I do not waiver from the admiration and respect which will flow from far and wide, my abiding memory will be of this lovely, empathetic, compassionate man. 

Dr Sue Rivers, MBA HEM 2009-11, Head of the School of Law, Birmingham City University:

David Watson was my supervisor on the MBA (Higher Education Management). His immense knowledge of Higher Education was simply extraordinary. As a Director of the programme he normally attended most sessions and made pertinent and insightful comments which always gave extra value. The experience and gravitas he brought, especially through his time as a VC, gave the programme a unique edge. The feedback that he gave to me as a student was key to my learning and progress and very much enhanced my understanding. What a huge loss to the sector!

Helen McAllister, Head of Language Centre, University of the Arts London:

David did some lectures when I was on the MBA HEM programme – he was a lovely man, full of wisdom and experience but also down to earth, warm and humorous. His writing, similarly, is great because it’s good stuff whilst also engaging and accessible. So sorry that he has gone so prematurely.

Dr Attracta Halpin, Registrar, National University of Ireland:

David was a wonderful teacher, intellectual and erudite across a broad range of the social sciences and the humanities. Though he carried his learning lightly, his training as a historian shone through and ensured that his contributions were always interesting above and beyond the topic immediately under discussion. Sorting through some papers recently, coincidentally I happened to come across a sheet David had circulated to my MBA class (2006). Headed ‘We need a Reading List’, – you’ll find it in the Leadership Foundation’s Engage vol. 2, available on their website – the ‘Watson list’ recommends ten books to inform and inspire students of higher education. It’s wonderfully wide-ranging and as he says himself “there’s no pure ‘management’ here”. While the list itself would need some updating ten years on, the breadth of his vision of, and for, higher education endures. 

Susi Poli, Italy, MBA HEM 2008-10, EdD student:

I would like to remember prof. David Watson this way, that’s the last time we met. It was end of November in Witney, my UK place. I met David in October at Green Templeton and invited him and his wife to Witney for a meal together. They came and we spent a joyful evening, eating fresh pasta and having an enjoyable conversation.

His insight into my thesis was straightforward: after that talk, my view on my research had magically expanded. It has always been astonishing to me his capability to catch shades beyond apparent meanings. His knowledge of the sector, higher education globally, was unlimited: but the UK sector was only the lens to understand other systems and not ‘the safe place to walk’.

We said Goodbye to each other at the bus stop on his way to Oxford and gave appointment to meet up, again, in 2015 possibly in Oxford. Thank you, David, for that evening together. Again, thanks for your smile, which was the friendly message to welcome everyone. Or to let everyone enter your world and knowledge.

Andrew Tuson, MBA HEM 2006-08, HE Consultant:

I found the greatest message that David gave was the constant reminder that HE at its best is humanistic, that compassion and people matter more than systems and KPIs.

Maureen McLaughlin, MBA HEM 2006-08, Dean of Quality and Standards University of Gloucestershire:

The IoE MBA programme was one of the most enlightening I had the privilege to experience. A wonderful mix of classmates and fantastic teaching and support staff, not least the enigmatic but down to earth David Watson. Only today I and an old colleague were talking about David as one of those rare individuals who are a combination of great intellect and fantastic personal skills. As course leader David was an inspiration – his sessions gave us access to his wide range of knowledge, expertise and great stories and they were delivered with insight and wit at every turn. He shared this with us generously and laughed along with us at some of the oddest aspects of HE. Although we were undoubtedly in awe of him, he always remained accessible, kind and interested in us as professionals and as individuals. Many of us have reconnected after way too long as a result of this news and it’s a fitting tribute to David that, in remembering him with great fondness and gratitude, we are all moved to enquire of one another once again. Unforgettable and irreplaceable.

Karen Perkins School Manager, School of Psychology, The University of Queensland:

and I have very fond memories of David as a teacher, insightful HE leader (those ‘wicked’ issues) and all-round lovely man. I think the last time I saw him he was telling me about his cross-Australia train trip, which he described very enthusiastically. I was very sorry to hear the news this morning – it is a great loss to the higher education community, in the UK and beyond.Sir David Watson

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