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Professor Sir David Watson (1949 – 2015)

An obituary of Professor Sir David Watson - a giant figure in higher education who has died aged 65. Written by his friend and colleague Rob Cuthbert.
This article is more than 9 years old

Rob Cuthbert is emeritus professor of higher education management and former Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of the West of England. He edits Higher Education Review and SRHE News, chairs the Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service, and is managing partner for the Practical Academics consultancy.

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 wonkhe oxford brookes

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.

13 responses to “Professor Sir David Watson (1949 – 2015)

  1. Thank you Rob for this tribute to a man whose passing will be mourned by all those who were fortunate to come into contact with him. David Cairns

  2. David was on of the towering figures of higher education in the last thirty years and his loss is a great sadness for both the sector and for the many people like me who knew him and experienced his contribution.

    It was my great privilege to first meet him in 1981 when he took up the post as first permanent Dean of the Modular Course at Oxford Polytechnic where I was a staff member of the Academic Board and shortly after I took up a post in the Registry. I worked across the corridor from David for 6 years, seeing him and talking to him virtually every day. He was only his in his early thirties but his thorough devotion to the totality of the student experience was inspirational, despite the hardships and difficulties of the first phase of the Thatcher government. Above all else he brought a quiet intellectualism to the process of defining academic policy and practice. He also embraced technology without fetishising it; in the mid-1980s we worked together to develop an electronic academic development plan for the Polytechnic when as a mere administrative assistant, I discovered the wonder of spreasheets, still in their infancy. David saw the importance of a quantitative basis to the development of strategy and I was delighted to provide him with some detailed figures for the excellent book on Managing the Modular Course that he edited. David’s understanding of strategy and the need for good planning at institutional level was much needed and his later book “Managing Strategy” did much to inspire the devolopment of “University Planning” as an important function of a modern university.

    I shall miss David’s contribution very much and I do hope that his former institutions, whether in Oxford, London, or Brighton, do their best to organise a fitting memorial event and a lasting legacy to his contribution to HE policy and strategy.

  3. Thanks Rob for doing this. I had the privilege of being supported when PVC at the Open University, when David acted as mentor and coach. He was everything you say, being a remarkable and very unusual amalgam of intellectual strength with no personal vanity. He was the most generous of individuals, and I treasure the memories of our conversations over coffee in the cafe in Russell Square where they so often took place, and which was a favourite of his.
    Alan Tait

  4. Such a shock to hear of his passing so soon after hearing of him becoming ill. I saw him in November where he presented me with my doctoral certificate at Green Templeton College. We shared a few jokes that day and I’m glad we did. I remember him fondly. It’s been an honour to know him on a professional and personal level.
    Thank you for this really great blog piece. I didn’t recognise him in the picture for a second, what a great shot of him.

  5. A fitting tribute to a truly remarkable man. David was my boss at Brighton, my PhD supervisor at the IOE and ongoing mentor, supporter and friend. David was that rare bird: clever and articulate, yet modest, approachable and unfailingly generous with his time. He had only recently commented on a draft article for me and written references for a post-doc fellowship application. As usual, agreeing to help without hesitation and delivering on time.

    I think the quality I liked most about him was his integrity. You always knew where you were with David. He was honest and sincere and trustworthy. He was also funny, great company and genuinely interested in people. Whenever I met him he never failed to ask how my husband was. In fact, it was due to David and his love of cricket that my husband and I first met. When Brighton Poly was to become a university in 1992, David asked me to organise a cricket match a part of a community day. My husband – a former cricket pro – was volunteered to play in the Vice Chancellor’s XI, and the rest as they say is history.

    I am deeply shocked and saddened that he has gone. A huge loss to his family and many friends and to the sector.

  6. Having known David for many years, my best recollection of him is as a great man coming to take over our MBA in Higher Education Management and instead of simply taking strategic decisions from on high taking a full and active part as a brilliant teacher (consistently getting the highest scores in our elaborate and detailed student feedback scheme) and as a member of the course team, diligently marking essays, advising students, supporting junior members of staff and always attending course team meetings. A very sad loss for all with a serious interest in higher education.

  7. One of those people who could ‘think deep’ and then share his thoughts with baffling simplicity. I found David thoroughly inspiring and felt he was genuinely one of the great.
    What a loss, not least for his family.

  8. David was all about synergy: an intellectual force, a teacher, researcher and leader with boundless curiosity, energy and humanity; and a genuine colleague and friend – both to those who knew him well and those who simply encountered him. A really sad loss.

  9. I met David just once, but he left a lasting impression. In a room full of huge and posturing egos he stood out for his quiet integrity, modesty and deep intelligence. This is indeed a sad and untimely loss.

  10. Since the very sad news that we had lost David Watson a couple of weeks ago there has been a genuine outpouring of grief. Understandably so; David was not only a towering figure of higher education policy but a kind and engaging man whose company everyone enjoyed. I will not try and replicate Rob’s fitting tribute above, this is much more about my own personal reflections on David since I met him in 1993.

    David was a wonderful communicator who always engaged his audience whether on a platform or in a more intimate conversation. It is not surprising that many of the tributes to David came from past students, from Brighton University, the Institute of Education and Green Templeton College, Oxford. While this is no surprise I do wonder how many other Vice Chancellors and HE leaders would have tributes from their past students whether he taught them or not.

    It is probably David’s policy work on British HE will remain as lasting legacy to his contribution to the sector. Although very much involved in the establishment, CNAA, Dearing etc., David never was afraid to speak him mind and contradict others if he believed they were wrong. In academic terms for me one of his most significant challenges was to the great Martin Trow, for while he believed UK HE had moved through the Trow process; from elite to mass and would move on to universal levels of higher education as more students had the opportunity to study in HE, he passionately believed Trow had it wrong in that he saw the UK through an US lens. David pointed out again and again that UK HE had managed, despite its expansion to maintain quality unlike the US and Trow argues that sacrificing some level of quality is a necessary evil. (David would always point to the UK retention statistics compared to the US as a way of indicating that the UK had maintained quality in a mass system).

    This is central to the UK HE mission and to our credibility. I often reflect on this as we now grapple with the growth of a very diverse sector, much more so than when David first talked about Trow’s argument. David saw the UK’s strength being in the value of quality assurance and appropriate regulation. This debate still has real resonance today.

    Personally I was fortunate enough to know David in a variety of different contexts. Academically as a young researcher he was kind enough to comment on papers, offer advice on new references and provide encouragement to develop my ideas. He transformed my thinking on students. He introduced me to a short article called the Information Age Mindset which has helped me to understand how technology has affected our social activities and in particular the difference between my and David’s generation’s attitudes to life and our students’s experiences. He told me once that he was often disappointed by some colleagues attitudes to our students. He told me he would often respond with; ‘don’t tell me what students can’t do, tell me what they can do’, an adage I try to use all the time in my role as a VC but still controversial I think.

    David was VC at Brighton when I was a PVC at Sussex. He sat on our council and our VC on his Board so I watched his abilities in managing meetings effectively. I worked closely with many of his senior team, Ruth Farwell, Elizabeth Maddison and Stuart Laing all who respected him and believed passionately in his vision for the University. He was also Chair of the Universities Association of Lifelong Learning when I was very active in the society. Not only was David great at speaking and inspiring at conferences, he was leader of the UALL Jazz band and I remember that the first thing he would do on arrival at a conference venue would be to bring all the possible ‘musicians’ together for a band rehearsal before they played later that night after the conference dinner.

    Of course there are many other memories but I am bit too sad now to carry on. Rest in Peace David your influence will continue to be felt on HE for many years to come…we miss you.

  11. Thank you Mary – thank you Rob – thank you all for these fitting tributes to a genuinely great man.

  12. As a student of Sir David I was always intrigued by his towering professionalism yet friendly personality. He wrote to me personally about his illness in early January and I was struck by how dignified and composed he was despite knowing he didn’t have much time left to be with us. It is hard to describe how sad we students are, but also how fortunate and privileged we feel to have had Sir David as our Principal of Green Templeton College and dear mentor and guide in life. All the tributes rightfully mention Sir David’s many contributions, but to me his greatest legacy is in motivating new academics such as myself to be more like him as we progress in life.

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