William Birch, 1925-2009

July 30, 2009

William Birch, a leading geographer who had a decisive impact on the development of Bristol Polytechnic, has died.

He was born on 24 November 1925 and educated at Ranelagh School in Berkshire, although military service - as an officer of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve guarding the Western Approaches in the Second World War - intervened before he could proceed to the University of Reading for his BA and PhD.

In 1960, after a spell as a lecturer in geography at the University of Bristol, he crossed the Atlantic to work in the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then as a professor of geography at the University of Toronto.

Returning to Britain in 1967, Professor Birch headed the geography department at the University of Leeds.

He served as vice-chairman of the Social Science Research Council's Geography and Planning Committee, and president of the Institute of British Geographers.

In 1975, however, he switched track to become director of Bristol Polytechnic.

A firm believer in the polytechnic ideal, Professor Birch proved highly effective in "bridging the gap between vision and reality", recalls Trevor Green, who worked with him as head of science and senior pro-director.

"He set up many degree courses and established a graduate culture, developing a research ethos while also consolidating the polytechnic as an institution serving the needs of industry, commerce and the professions," Dr Green said.

"He put in all the spadework for it eventually to achieve university status (as the University of the West of England) in 1992."

While steering his own institution, Professor Birch also played a major role on the national stage as chairman of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics from 1982 to 1984.

Although one of the rare figures from the polytechnic sector to serve on the National Advisory Body for Local Authority Higher Education, he took the bold - and controversial - decision to resign when he consistently proved unable to convince others to modify the binary system of funding.

Even after retirement in 1986, Professor Birch gave lectures all over the world and took on visiting professorships at the University of London's Institute of Education and the University of Bristol.

He summed up his philosophy in The Challenge to Higher Education: Reconciling Responsibilities to Scholarship and to Society (1988).

Professor Birch died of a neurological illness on 12 June and is survived by his wife, Mary, a son and a daughter.


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