Roy Anthony Becher, 1930-2009

April 2, 2009

Roy Anthony Becher, a founding father of higher education research in Britain, has died.

He was born in Poona, India, where his father was officiating director of artillery at Army Headquarters, on 19 December 1930. He moved to England around the age of 13 to attend Cheltenham College. After National Service in 1949, where he trained as a radio operator (but peeled a lot of potatoes), he went to St John's College, Cambridge.

Professor Becher graduated with a double first in mathematics and philosophy in 1954. He also performed and wrote sketches for three Footlights revues alongside Jonathan Miller and Frederic Raphael. He was to remain at Cambridge until 1961, working as a supervisor in philosophy in three different colleges as well as assistant secretary at Cambridge University Press.

Striking out into new territory, Professor Becher became assistant director at the Nuffield Foundation (and then director of the Nuffield Higher Education group), where he helped develop the Cambridge Maths series and visited every university and polytechnic in the country to try to improve teaching standards. He was also a consultant to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on curriculum development in secondary schools.

When Professor Becher moved to the University of Sussex in 1975, he found the long-term home where he produced his most important work. Joining the university as professor of education, he was subsequently appointed chairman of education and head of the Academic Audit.

His eight authored and co-authored books include an edited survey of British Higher Education (1987). Yet it was Academic Tribes and Territories (1989; second edition with Paul Trowler, 2001) that became a classic. He shed new light on how people working in different disciplines tend to have their own cognitive and social characteristics, and distinctive models of learning and the reproduction of knowledge. His expanded his insights into the broader field of professional expertise in Professional Practices: Commitment and Capability in a Changing Environment (1999).

Although Professor Becher retired from Sussex in 1996, he continued to develop his research and to act as a visiting consultant on higher education in countries including China, Australia and Sweden. Co-author Sharon Parry, associate professor of higher education at Southern Cross University, Australia, remembers "an incredibly humble man with an unequalled eloquence and at times a wicked wit, whose gentle demeanour brought out the best qualities in those around him ... (His) ability to express simply and elegantly the most complex ideas was truly astonishing."

He died on 9 March after a long battle with Parkinson's disease and is survived by his wife Dorothy, four children and five grandchildren.

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