Sir David Watson dies aged 65

Tributes made to eminent professor of higher education, former Brighton v-c and head of Oxford college

February 9, 2015

Sir David Watson, one of the UK’s leading higher education academics and principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford, has died at the age of 65.

Sir David, who was also professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, led the University of Brighton to gaining university status in 1992 and continued as vice-chancellor for another 13 years.

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

As a prolific and influential higher education commentator, he was knighted in 1998 for his services to the sector.

He was a regular contributor to Times Higher Education, noted for his ability to articulate clear, well-structured arguments.

Sir David wrote on topics as diverse as the coalition’s 2011 higher education White Paper; what universities in the West have to learn from those in the global South and East; and more recently chastised the government for its “abject failure” in not seeing there would be problems in letting for-profit colleges access public funding and declared that the Russell Group was a “dangerous” threat to the sector’s unity.

He was awarded the THE Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

A tribute published on Green Templeton’s website describes Sir David as “an energetic ‘hands-on’ head of house who was involved in every aspect of College life”.

“He demonstrated outstanding dedication in his leadership of the College’s dynamic, influential and friendly community of students, fellows and staff, which focuses on understanding the issues of managing human welfare in the modern world,” it says, describing his legacy as “enormous”.

During his four years at the college, Sir David, along with vice-principal Ingrid Lunt, oversaw the development of its Advanced Studies Centre which opened early last year and provides learning spaces for postgraduate students.

He was a keen musician and a talented pianist and, along with his wife, Betty Pinto Skolnick, hosted regular music evenings for amateur college musicians. He also helped to develop a programme of music recitals and concerts for the college.

Sir David’s scholarly life began at Clare College, Cambridge, where he read history. He was later a Thouron scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, where in 1975 he was awarded a doctorate in intellectual history.

Throughout his career he contributed widely to developments in UK higher education, including as a member of the Council for National Academic Awards (1977-1993), the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council (1988-92) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (1992-96).

He was also a member of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing, whose report Higher Education in the Learning Society was published in 1997, and chaired the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, co-authoring its report, Learning Through Life, in 2009.

He served as chair of the Universities Association for Continuing Education between 1994 and 1998, and was president of the Society for Research into Higher Education between 2005 and 2012. He was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2008.

His many publications include Developing professional education (with Hazel Bines, 1992); Managing the university curriculum (with Jean Bocock, 1994); New Directions in Professional Higher Education (with Tim Katz and Tom Bourner, 2000); The Engaged University (with Robert Hollister, Susan Stroud and Elizabeth Babcock, 2011); The Question of Conscience: higher education and personal responsibility (2013), and more than 400 articles, book chapters and reviews.

Writing on Twitter, Anthony Smith (@AnthonySmithVP), vice-provost (education and student affairs) at UCL, said: “Very sad that my friend and mentor Sir David Watson has died. I’ll miss his wisdom greatly.”

Mary Curnock Cook (@MaryCurnockCook), chief executive of Ucas, said: “So saddened to hear of death of David Watson. Such a clear thinker and communicator.”

Wes Streeting (@WesStreeting), president of the National Union of Students between 2008 and 2010, described Sir David as “one of the good guys in higher education: a fountain of knowledge”.

Mike Ratcliffe (@mike_rat), formerly director of academic and student affairs at Oxford Brookes University and a PhD student at the UCL Institute of Education, said he was an “incomparable figure in UK HE”, adding it was among “the greatest privileges of my life to have known David Watson and to have learnt from him”.

Sir David, who it is understood had been battling cancer, is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, and one granddaughter.

Sir David Watson’s ‘Laws of the Academic Jungle’

In 2009, the year he was awarded the THE Lord Dearing Lifetime Achievement Award, Sir David Watson distilled the wisdom drawn from his decades in academia into a typically pithy take on university life.

The ‘Laws of the Academic Jungle’ were contained in his book, The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life, published by the Open University Press.

Here they are again:

  • Academics grow in confidence the farther away they are from their true fields of expertise (what you really know about is provisional and ambiguous, what other people do is clear-cut and usually wrong)
  • You should never go to a school or department for anything that is in its title (which university consults its architecture department on the estate, or – heaven forbid – its business school on the budget?)
  • The first thing a committee member says is the exact opposite of what she means (“I’d like to agree with everything the vice-chancellor has just said, but…”; or “with respect”…; or even “briefly”)
  • Courtesy is a one-way street (social-academic language is full of hyperbole, and one result is the confusion of rudeness – or even cruelty – with forthrightness; however, if a manager responds in kind, it’s a federal case)
  • On email, nobody ever has the last word
  • Somebody always does it better elsewhere (because they are better supported)
  • Feedback counts only if I agree with it
  • The temptation to say “I told you so” is irresistible
  • Finally, there is never enough money, but there used to be.

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