Paul Webley, 1953-2016

A leading economic psychologist who led [!Soas, University of London!] for almost a decade has died

March 17, 2016
Obituary: Paul Webley, 1953-2016

Paul Webley, who was born on 19 November 1953, studied for his undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics, where he later took his PhD.

After a brief period as a lecturer at the University of Southampton, Professor Webley moved to the University of Exeter, where he remained for 26 years, serving as lecturer, professor, head of department (1993-2003) and deputy vice-chancellor (2003-06).

Sir Steve Smith, Exeter’s vice-chancellor since 2002, credits Professor Webley with “revolutionising” Exeter’s academic strategy and leading its “transformation…from a complacent institution to a much more ambitious one”.

“Paul would never accept second best, either for students or for his academic colleagues,” Sir Steve said. “He worked tirelessly to promote academic excellence and saw his role as one of creating space for academic colleagues to do their best work,” he added.

Professor Webley, whose research interests included the psychology of money and taxation, was appointed director of Soas in 2006.

He told its student paper Soas Spirit in November 2014 how the Bloomsbury institution “lacked a sense of purpose” when he arrived, which he sought to address. He helped to grow overall student numbers from about 2,000 to 5,000 during his period of office.

His time at Soas also included several public run-ins with unions over conditions for cleaners and fractional staff.

As deputy vice-chancellor of the University of London, he led the review board that recommended the controversial closure of its federal students’ union in 2013, saying that the institution made little sense given the stronger institutional identities of today’s London colleges.

Professor Webley’s later successes at Soas included securing a £20 million gift to Soas from the Chicago-based Alphawood Foundation in 2013, to support the study of Southeast Asian art and the school’s estates revamp. 

As an academic, Professor Webley wrote 10 books, 68 journal articles and contributed about 140 academic publications, for which he was elected to the Academy of Social Sciences in 2010.

He was a former president of the International Association for Research in Economic Psychology, where he worked on topics as diverse as tax avoidance, children’s savings behaviour and the law-breaking typified by dog fouling.

Professor Webley was appointed CBE in the 2015 New Year Honours for his services to higher education, shortly before announcing his retirement from Soas in January 2015 owing to ill health.

He died of cancer at the age of 62 on 2 March. He is survived by his wife Julie, their three children and two grandchildren.

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