Ronald Kay, 1920-2019

Tributes paid to a pioneer of applying computer power to university administration

June 13, 2019
Ronald Kay

The head of the UK’s Universities Central Council on Admissions for its first quarter-century has died.

Ronald Kay was born in Sheffield in 1920. He gained a scholarship to the local grammar school and another to read English at the University of Sheffield. He spent the war years at the Ministry of Shipping and then worked at the Control Commission administering a defeated Germany. After trying to build a career as a singer, which he combined with teaching English at universities in Copenhagen and Vienna, he decided to return to England and university administration.

It was while working as assistant registrar at the University of Leeds that Mr Kay joined forces with Sandy Douglas – in charge of the institution’s computing resources – to store all the university’s matriculation records on computer. The pair quickly realised that this had potential to address a significant national challenge.

Each university then had its own application form, timescale and terminology for applications, and none could reliably predict how many students would attend their courses. The post-war “bulge” in births was likely to put further pressure on an already chaotic system. A series of working parties and reports in the period from 1957 to 1961 standardised the whole applications procedure, and the individual institutions eventually agreed to create the Universities Central Council on Admissions.

In the summer of 1960, Mr Key was tasked with designing the details of the scheme. He began negotiations with ICL and IBM to produce a computer system to run it. When Ucca was formally launched, he became its first executive head. He oversaw the process by which existing institutions and then the new universities of the 1960s came on board. Although technological advances inevitably led to developments such as the introduction of data exchange between examining boards and online links to selectors in universities, the fundamental principles remained the same even after Ucca became the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in 1993 and indeed until today.

Well aware that applying to university could be a very personal and emotive undertaking, Mr Kay made a point of printing his name at the bottom of every acceptance and rejection letter. He remained in post at Ucca until retirement in 1985, when he was able to pursue his passion for music – he was still singing with a community choir two weeks before his death at the age of 99.

Mr Kay died on 19 May and is survived by three sons, three daughters, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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