A holistic carer

Roger Williams's passion for the welfare of the young is clear in all his roles, the most recent of which is leading Agora

July 10, 2008

At 77, Roger Williams could be forgiven for calling time on academic life; but far from considering retirement, the director of the Institute of Hepatology at University College London has taken on an extra job: acting chairman of Agora, the higher education think-tank.

"I've been a trustee right from the start, and when Hugo de Burgh (the previous Agora chairman) decided to concentrate on his other role as chairman of our academic advisory committee I offered to chair the trustees until we found somebody permanent," he said.

Agora has had a fantastic year, he enthuses. Having completed its investigation into relationships between British universities and China, on which it published a paper last year, the think-tank is turning its attention to India. "We continue to look at the issues of top-up fees and access - the fact that so many 16-year-olds don't do A levels."

He praises the "access to medicine" scheme at King's College London, which takes on students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have grades below those normally required for medical school entry and provides them with extra tuition. "I'm very supportive of the King's initiative. Most of those taken in under that scheme have done pretty well. But the issue is not really whether we should take in people who haven't made the grade but that they should have been able to make the grade and didn't."

He added: "The second issue is that universities in the UK have to have very high standards if they are to maintain their standing, which means high standards of teachers and researchers but also of students."

Professor Williams hit the headlines in 2002 when he oversaw the liver transplant for footballer George Best, but in medical circles his name had long been made: he carried out the UK's first liver transplant in 1968.

He is a vociferous campaigner against alcohol abuse. This year, he called for universities to ban drinking games after a University of Exeter student died of alcohol poisoning following a golf society initiation contest.

"The figures are terrifying in terms of the rising numbers of death from liver disease, which parallel the rise in alcohol consumption," he said. To tackle the problem, the Government must target access, affordability and advertising. "All three require tough government action that isn't necessarily going to be seen as appealing by the public. A large shift in general opinion is needed - and, unless there is clear government action, that isn't going to happen."

He pointed to the drunken parties on the London Underground before the ban on drinking alcohol on the Tube took effect. "That seemed to me so awful," he said.


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