Born on 7 September 1931, he was evacuated to Wales during the Second World War before returning to the Royal Liberty School in Romford, where he won a scholarship to study modern history at Keble College, Oxford.
Although he started his career as a teacher, Professor Burgess soon moved into educational journalism and then to a research role at the London School of Economics. His early working life stood him in good stead when his Guide to English Schools (1964) became an established reference tool for trainee teachers.
At the LSE, Professor Burgess worked in the Higher Education Research Unit from 1965 to 1970, producing studies of higher education in India, colleges of advanced technology (which had just achieved university status) and emerging polytechnics. The last of these, published after he had joined the North East London Polytechnic (NELP), proved controversial, since it argued that vocational institutions tended to undermine their own rationale by drifting towards the "autonomous tradition" of universities. NELP became part of the University of East London in 1992.
Professor Burgess remained there until his retirement, overseeing its Centre for Institutional Studies, which applied the insights gained from studying higher education policy to fields as diverse as forestry conservation in India and local government in Malta. He was appointed professor in the philosophy of social institutions in 1987.
While at NELP, Professor Burgess was asked to develop a new two-year sub-degree diploma. While doing so, he forged a radical educational philosophy known as "independent study". Instead of subject experts drawing up curriculums from on high, it allowed students to define what they wanted from their programmes.
NELP maintained a system of independent study for 20 years. Although it was eventually abandoned, a number of elements that Professor Burgess promoted and incorporated - such as reflective statements, group working and guided private study - remain influential today.
John Pratt, emeritus professor of education at UEL, recalls a man of "very powerful intellect" who was "generous, loyal and supportive".
"Until his last day he was sending witty and self-effacing postcards to friends about his activities and plans," he said. "In many ways, he was one of the great Victorians. He believed that individuals should have the opportunity to advance themselves, and equally that they had to take responsibility for this."
Professor Burgess died of prostate cancer on 24 April and is survived by his wife, Joan, a son and two daughters.