David Watson, who has died aged 65, was one of the foremost academic leaders of his generation. Although his abundant talents meant that any career could have been open to him, it is our great good fortune that he chose to spend his life in higher education as an academic, manager, strategic thinker and policymaker, enriching the lives of thousands of students and colleagues with his wisdom, humanity, courage and leadership.
David Watson was educated at Cheshunt Grammar School and Eton College, and read history at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was a Choral Exhibitioner and Open Scholar, winning first class honours. He was a Thouron Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was awarded his doctorate in intellectual history in 1975, laying the foundations for his own lifelong reflective practice.
Taking as he often did the road less travelled, in his early career he moved not into any of the elite universities which would have welcomed him, but instead to the polytechnic sector, where he rapidly became Dean and then Deputy Director at Oxford Polytechnic (1981-1990). Oxford’s innovative curriculum was described in David’s first book about higher education, Managing the modular course (1989), one of the very few books about the HE curriculum which comprehends learning as both pedagogy and institutional strategy. As a member of the Council for National Academic Awards (1977-1993) he made a major contribution to CNAA’s groundbreaking curriculum innovation at national level.
David Watson was already a member of the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council (1988-92) before he became Director of Brighton Polytechnic (1990-1992) and Vice Chancellor of its successor the University of Brighton (1992-2005), continuing also as a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (1992-1996). He became not only an outstanding university leader but also one of the most prominent actors in HE policymaking and equally prominent author of influential works on higher education policy and curriculum: Developing professional education (with Hazel Bines, 1992); Managing the university curriculum (with Jean Bocock, 1994); and Lifelong learning and the university (with Richard Taylor, 1998).
As a manager David Watson’s transparent integrity and concern for others made him not just a colleague but a friend to many at Brighton, where he played a major role in shaping the university as it gained university status, giving it a distinctive role among the leading post-1992 universities. He was an accomplished chair of all kinds of meetings, deploying his unrivalled knowledge, gentle sense of humour and twinkling smile without artifice.
Unusually for a Vice Chancellor he also continued to be a leading researcher into higher education, publishing Managing Strategy (2000), New Directions in Professional Higher Education (with Tim Katz and Tom Bourner, 2000), Higher education and the lifecourse (with Maria Slowey, 2003), and Managing Institutional Self-Study (with Elizabeth Maddison, 2005). This made it easy for him to return in 2005 to a full-time academic role as leader of the MBA Higher Education Management at the Institute of Education (2005-2010), one of the world’s best programmes for “people at the beginning of the middle of their careers”, as he put it.
David Watson as Deputy Director of Oxford Polytechnic. Photo: Steve Maybury/Oxford Brookes
David was elected chair of the Universities Association for Continuing Education (1994-1998) and chaired the Longer Term Strategy Group of Universities UK (1999-2005). He was a member of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s National Commission on Education (whose report Learning to Succeed was published in 1993), and the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education chaired by Sir Ron Dearing (whose report Higher Education in the Learning Society was published in 1997). Introducing Sir David’s retirement lecture at Brighton, Ron Dearing said; “I have taken on a number of very difficult tasks in higher education over the years. I did so because I was confident that David Watson was there.”
Not just there, but here, there and everywhere, it seemed, with a continuing flow of publications: Managing Civic and Community Engagement (2007); The Dearing Report: ten years on (edited with Michael Amoah, 2007); Learning Through Life (with Tom Schuller, 2009); The Question of Morale (2009); The Engaged University (with Robert Hollister, Susan Stroud and Elizabeth Babcock, 2011); Learning Transitions in Higher Education (with David Scott, Gwyneth Hughes, Penny-Jane Burke, Carol Evans, and Catherine Walter, 2013); and The Question of Conscience: higher education and personal responsibility (2013), as well as over 400 articles, chapters in books, and reviews. He was a supportive and developmental co-author and generous with his time as a speaker for every kind of HE audience.
In 2010 he began another phase of his Oxford career, becoming the second Principal of Green Templeton College and professor of higher education in the University. He was an energetic ‘hands-on’ head of house, demonstrating outstanding dedication in his leadership of the College community, which focuses on understanding the issues of managing human welfare in the modern world. Typifying that concern, he not only helped to oversee the development of the college’s Advanced Studies Centre but also got a new gym built and continued his trademark much-loved musical soirees for students and staff. He was a keen musician and talented pianist and an Honorary Member of the Royal College of Music.
He was knighted in 1998 for services to higher education. He had eight honorary doctorates and may other academic honours, including a National Teaching Fellowship in 2008 and the Times Higher Education Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. He was President of the Society for Research into Higher Education (2005-2012); his Brighton colleague Yvonne Hillier, SRHE Chair during his Presidency, described him as “one of the few truly honest men who combined intellectual prowess with genuine concern and friendship for colleagues … His genuine warmth for colleagues in the research community was much appreciated by newer and fully established researchers alike”.
The citation for his SRHE Fellowship emphasised the improbability of this life of achievement, and imagined someone who ‘would make it possible for us still to believe in the magic of academe, because we could see everything that we valued embodied in that one person’ – a brilliant student, a wonderful colleague, an outstanding teacher and researcher, admired and respected inside and outside the institutions he led, prominent in national policymaking, and making a significant contribution in the field of research into higher education.
David Watson was all of those things and more, a loyal and supportive friend to many in higher education, and the best friend of HE that anyone could imagine. He died on 8 February 2015 after a short illness, and is survived by his wife Betty Pinto Skolnick, his children Michael and Sarah, and his granddaughter Lila.