'I'm just a dyed-in-the-wool scholar'

January 4, 2002

He's had two careers in higher education, retired twice, but at 78 years Lewis Elton is still going strong.

Lewis Elton has retired twice. But few would know it. For Elton is as busy, prodigious and incisive as ever. Today he has risen at 5am to make it from London to Madingley Hall, Cambridge, where by noon he had helped present three papers at the Society of Research into Higher Education's annual conference.

Sitting on a bench by the East Wing staircase, Elton, professor of higher education at University College, London, shrugs off any suggestion of stopping. "I've been a dyed-in-the wool academic all my life. I work most days with an occasional day off. It doesn't have to be a Saturday or Sunday. This weekend, for instance, I will be working at home to finish a project I am doing with Brenda Johnson of the Open University."

The project compares German and British students' views about university and its relationship to employment. "I think Brenda only roped me in because I'm bilingual," says Elton in self-deprecating fashion.

The German roots are still evident in Elton's accent. Born in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1923, he comes from a long line of German-Jewish scholars. But the rise of fascism threatened the family's future. Luckily, in 1939, Elton's father, a professor of ancient history at the German University in Prague, left with his family for the United Kingdom on a year's grant from the British Society for the Protection of Learning and the Sciences.

A month later, Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia. The family lived in London and Newcastle upon Tyne. Lewis and his brother Geoffrey, who became regius professor of history at Cambridge, were given free places at Rydal School, Colwyn Bay. Oddly for someone who has made such stirring contributions to student learning, Elton says his first higher education experience "was not successful. It was studying mathematics at Christ's College, Cambridge, and I was saved from possible failure by not being allowed to complete because of the war. After that I took a London correspondence degree. That was much more formative because I was working on my own and that has influenced me throughout my life."

Elton studied for a PhD in theoretical physics at UCL before becoming a lecturer at King's College London. He went on to become head of physics at Battersea College of Technology, the forerunner of the University of Surrey in Guildford.

It was at Surrey that Elton, aged 45, embarked on a second career. "I had become head of physics at 35, and the thought of 20 more years was not appealing. I asked the vice-chancellor if I could switch my research to improving teaching and learning in universities and he agreed. It kept me young.

"I'd always been interested in teaching and research. In the 1960s I belonged to a physics group who were writing quite a lot about teaching. I had certainly reflected on how orthodox methods did not work."

Elton headed the Institute of Educational Technology from 1967-86 while working with the educational studies department. He was awarded a chair of higher education in 1987 and became an emeritus professor in 1989. During this time he bombarded the education development world with ideas about student learning, many of which were ahead of their time. But the achievement that most pleases him is that eight former staff or students are now professors.

His legacy to Surrey, however, extends further. Elton must be one of the few living physicists in the world to have an art gallery named after him. The Lewis Elton Gallery is a tribute to a project started at Battersea in 1962. "I was walking up the stairs and looking at the reproductions hanging there going grimy. I thought 'we've got to have real art. We must have originals'."

He got Camberwell School of Art to mount an exhibition, first in the physics department. Other exhibitions followed later on the main Surrey campus. The university charged no gallery fee, and Elton initially financed the outlay from profits from a coffee machine - "a real cultural faux pas ", he says. Artists got 100 per cent of any sales. "It cost me very little," says Elton, "and later I got a small grant."

The same versatility was evident when he first retired, aged 65. "I quickly got four days' a week work as an education adviser at the employment department. I was there for five years and one of the universities I worked with was UCL. I was retiring for a second time when the college wanted a part-time professor of higher education for two days a week to start research in higher education. 'If you want work to be of international standard, I must be allowed to work for five,' I said, and the provost agreed."

Since then Elton has followed his hobby-horses of assessment, change management, quality and standards. He is much in demand as a keynote speaker because he is often controversial, always thought-provoking and never dull. He even turned his hand to stand-up comedy, performing a double act at the fifth anniversary of the Staff and Educational Development Association with his son, comedian and author Ben Elton.

His latest mission is to convince people of the need for a quality assurance agency that acts as a responsible buffer and broker between academia and government. "We used to have one - the Universities Grants Committee - but it was irresponsible," he says. He is angered by government short-termism in regard to funding teaching and research. "I've seen big changes in teaching and learning, but the effects are contradictory. Teaching and learning are being taken seriously, but there is pressure to be simplistic. We are expected to give easy answers. Government says: 'Tell us what works and we'll let you do it' - but then it comes down to finance."

Elton's other bugbear is bureaucracy. "It is not that everything was wonderful before because universities were not so accountable but the weight of red tape on academics is unreasonable."

Having reduced his own committee work, he says he is doing what he enjoys. "My next retirement will be in two years when I'm 80, and so I am beginning to look around for a job after that. Any ideas?"

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