Colleagues pay tribute to Sir David Watson’s career

Academic’s ‘formidable expertise and knowledge’ and ‘unique voice’ remembered

February 12, 2015

Source: Mim Saxl

Sir David Watson was ‘convinced of the power of universities to do good’

Tributes have been paid to Sir David Watson, one of the country’s best-known higher education academics and former vice-chancellor of the University of Brighton, who has died at the age of 65.

Sir David, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and principal of the institution’s Green Templeton College, led Brighton to gaining university status in 1992 and continued as head of the institution for another 13 years.

He was also a member of the Dearing review in the 1990s and professor of higher education at the Institute of Education (now part of University College London) between 2005 and 2010.

Sir Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at UCL Institute of Education and a former colleague, said that he was “a major presence in higher education” whose contribution to the public understanding of the sector was “unsurpassed”.

Chris Husbands, director of the UCL IoE, said that the sector had lost a “unique voice” that was “well-informed, wry, sceptical of fads and convinced of the power of universities to do good”.

Sir David, who was knighted in 1998 for his services to the sector, was a regular contributor to Times Higher Education and wrote on topics ranging from UK government policy to what Western universities could learn from those in the global South and East.

He was also a major voice in public debate on higher education, often championing the cause of newer universities. Last year, he declared that the Russell Group was a “dangerous” threat to the sector’s unity.

Former universities and science minister David Willetts praised Sir David’s “formidable expertise and knowledge” of higher education, thanking him for his counsel while in opposition and as a minister.

“He was always willing to help to explain background to an issue,” said Mr Willetts.

Noting Sir David’s past as a historian, he added: “He came at issues with a historical perspective, which gave his views an extra authority.”

Julian Crampton, vice-chancellor of Brighton, praised Sir David’s “major role in shaping the university as it gained university status”, saying that the news of his death was met with “considerable sadness” on campus.

The university is to name a new academic building and library on its Circus Street site after Sir David, he added.

Roger Brown, former Southampton Solent University vice-chancellor, said that Sir David had been a “very good spokesman for new universities in the early 90s”, adding that he was “incredibly well-read, prolific and very clever”.

Several of Sir David’s former students at the IoE have also praised his teaching.

“His use of language, 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,” said one of them, Liz Marr, now director of The Open University’s Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships.

Sir David, who had only recently been diagnosed with cancer, was also president of the Society for Research into Higher Education between 2005 and 2012.

The society’s chair during his tenure, Yvonne Hiller, professor of higher education at Brighton, said that Sir David was “one of the few truly honest men who combined intellectual prowess with genuine concern and friendship for colleagues”.

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