This article is more than 9 years old

Professor Sir David Watson 1949-2015

Mark Leach writes briefly on the sad news of the death of HE sector stalwart, David Watson.
This article is more than 9 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Some incredibly sad news reached higher education this afternoon – the death of David Watson. Few people have made such an enormous and far-reaching contribution to UK higher education – and remained such a decent, open and friendly collaborator. As well as making a major academic contribution to the development of HE – his work is essential reading – he also played a critical role in directly shaping the sector we have today.

A Professor of Higher Education Management from 2005 to 2010 at the Institute of Education, vice chancellor of the University of Brighton (1990-2005), and dean and deputy director of Oxford Polytechnic (1981-90). He was finally Principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford – whose announcement of his death summarise some of his other huge achievements:

His academic interests were in the history of ideas and in higher education policy and he contributed widely to developments in UK higher education, including as a member of the Council for National Academic Awards (1977-1993), the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council (1988-92), and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (1992-96).

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). He also chaired the national Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, and co-authored its report Learning Through Life (2009).

He was the elected chair of the Universities Association for Continuing Education between 1994 and 1998, chaired the Longer Term Strategy Group of Universities UK between 1999 and 2005, and was President of the Society for Research into Higher Education between 2005 and 2012. He was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2008 and the Times Higher Education Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

David left his mark on every big development in higher education and was the ‘go to’ person for countless policymakers and politicians. He was a friend of Wonkhe and we had spoken recently about him making a written contribution. The fact that he will never appear on these pages with a new contribution is a source of regret, but I hope we can honour him in other ways.

A career highlight of mine was one summer’s afternoon I spent with David in 2013. As adviser to the shadow universities & science minister of the time, I called on David’s help and he gave his afternoon up to come and sit with me and talk exhaustively about how we might implement his long-held ambition to create a true credit transfer system in UK HE – which combined with some of the other ideas at the time, was to be the ‘sticking glue’ of a policy platform that never came to be. We found a small private room in the rabbit-warren of The Palace of Westminster and he took me to school – changing both my views and the way I thought about how the sector was organised. He’d held similar conversations with politicians, advisers, policymakers in every party, at every level for many years. But as ever, the politics (in the sector and above) never allowed for such sensible, thoughtful ideas to come to fruition. It will now fall to others to continue his campaign.

David Watson’s achievements are so wide in scope, I can not do them justice today. But they will be felt for decades – as will his loss. An inspiration to every HE wonk and a friend to all that cared about our sector. Sir David, we salute you.


Some of the reaction on Twitter this afternoon:

Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln:

Andrew Boggs, OxCHEPS:

Mike Ratcliffe:

3 responses to “Professor Sir David Watson 1949-2015

  1. A wonderful man, scholar and mentor. I used to go to him with question of policy whenever I hit a particularly thorny question of HE history. I was always astounded he was so generous with his time and insight.

    I’m just shocked and saddened by this.

  2. Eidos Institute was terribly sad to hear of David’s unexpected passing. David was a unique human being and friend. When we first met David in the late 1990’s we found mutual interest and passion in the roles universities play in building a better local and global community. In the years that passed we cooked up many ideas and joint pieces of work with our US, South African, European and Australian friends and colleagues. David was an anchor in much of this work. His passing leaves a great hole. We remember fondly David’s visit to Australia in the early 2000’s. It was one of the most significant conferences in Australia on universities engaging with their communities – very much launched by David’s thinking. Fortunately David’s writings allow us to continue to feel close to him, his thinking and his ideas advocacy. “It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards.” Our thoughts and prayers are with David’s family over the coming weeks and months.

  3. So glad I had the chance to chat with David at the HEPI Lecture, when he was his usual insightful and iconoclastic self. I will miss his kindness, encouragement and wisdom.

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