Where a taste for the Wild West can take you

January 14, 2005

David Watson, who will leave Brighton University at the end of this academic year to take up a new chair of higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London, sees himself first and foremost as a historian.

It is an interesting label for a man who has built his reputation as a university administrator, not only as head of one of the most successful new universities for the past 15 years but as a pivotal player in nearly every major higher education body since the Seventies.

But this label is key to understanding the man. In a millennium talk at Brighton on the necessity of the historical imagination, Sir David said:

"In almost every context where I am asked to state my profession, I like to say 'historian'."

And he is clear about the type of historian he is. In the same lecture he quoted a passage from Richard Evans's 1997 book In Defence of History . In a rallying cry against those who argue that history is dead, or that all the world is a fictional construct, Evans declared: "I will look humbly at the past and say, despite them all, it really happened, and we really can, if we are scrupulous and careful and self-critical, find out how it happened and reach some tenable though always less-than-final conclusions about what it all meant."

The question "what it all meant" underpins Sir David's research on what it has meant for a society to move from an elite to a mass system of higher education. To date, he has produced 18 books and monographs on higher education.

It is an approach that will underpin his work at the institute, where he will join the likes of Gareth Roberts, Ron Barnett and Michael Shattock when he takes up the chair. As well as teaching management, he will be researching areas such as universities and civic engagement.

It is also an approach that will underpin his next book on managing institutional self-study. "Universities must get better at self-study, at learning to understand how they operate both individually and collectively," he says.

Applying Evans' "how it happened" to Sir David's career, we find out that his educational journey began in Cheshunt. He was the son of a schoolteacher and secured a place at the local grammar school.

But at 13 his childhood was transformed with the award of a Fleming Scholarship. He was transplanted from his local grammar school to Eton, in what he has described as a "short-lived pre-Sutton Trust-style initiative".

He plays down the move, but it marks him out among vice-chancellors. While many benefited from a grammar-school education and scholarships and bursaries, few were thrust up the class system so young and so abruptly.

Eton did not fail him. He went on to read history at Clare College, Cambridge, gaining a first in both parts of the history tripos. He was a Foundation and Open Scholar in history and a Choral Exhibitioner. Sir David is a jazz fan and a pianist and saxophonist.

After Cambridge, Sir David went to the University of Pennsylvannia as a Thouron Scholar to do a PhD titled Idealism and Social Theory: A Comparative Study of British and American Adaptations of Hegel .

While an Eton-Cambridge background might have marked Sir David out as a man for Oxbridge or the Ivy League, he chose a very different path.

In 1975, he joined Crewe and Alsager College of Higher Education as a history lecturer and later joined Oxford Polytechnic. What drew him were the opportunities offered to focus on teaching and course development.

"The college sector then, a bit like the polytechnic sector later, was rather like the Wild West," he said. "There was more innovation in terms of course development, more freedom."

In 1981, he moved to Oxford Brookes University where he became dean of the modular courses and then deputy director for academic affairs. His next move was to Brighton.

His career in the new-university sector has allowed him to pursue one of his key interests - access. "I liked the democratic feel of polytechnics," he said. But he has always insisted that access has to be to something that is worthwhile. "There has to be access to quality."

It is no accident that Sir David has worked on a number of quality bodies over the years, including the old Council for National Academic Awards.

Like many vice-chancellors, he is deeply troubled by top-up fees. In the early stages of debate, he pushed strongly for a flat-rate fee, and later argued that there had to be a threshold fee to safeguard quality. Neither idea was taken up.

He reluctantly supported the Higher Education Bill last year, because it abolished upfront fees and reintroduced serious grants - both ideas favoured eight years ago by the Dearing Inquiry on which he sat.

Asked which of his monographs on higher education has had the most impact, he eschews the 2002 report for Universities UK longer term strategy group, which he chairs. The report showed that funding cuts had wiped out the benefit of fees.

What he points to is the 2003 report for the same group showing the power of the "non-aligned" universities, those, which include Brighton, outside university groupings such as the Russell Group.

Non-aligned - it is clearly a position that suits him. And it is not a bad one for a historian happy to describe himself as a "non-dogmatic theorist" keen to find out "what it all meant".

claire.sanders@thes.co.uk

I graduated from Clare College, Cambridge; the University of Pennsylvania

MY FIRST JOB WAS to develop "diversified" courses in the post-James world of teacher education (some readers will know exactly what this meant)

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS is to remain optimistic

WHAT I HATE MOST is cruelty

IN TEN YEARS I... will be able to play all of the Schubert piano sonatas

MY FAVOURITE JOKE... comes from the late Sir Ray Rickett (director of Middlesex Polytechnic and chairman of CNAA) on performance-related funding in polytechnics: "When the State of Texas wanted to reduce the rattlesnake population it offered 10 cents a rattle. The result was not a reduction in rattlesnakes, but the emergence of rattlesnake farms."

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