A huge loss to higher education: a tribute to David Watson

Sir David Watson, 1949-2015. Mim Saxl

David Watson, the principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford and a revered professor of higher education, died on Sunday, February 8, aged 65. It is a huge and sad loss: to his family and friends, to his colleagues, and to the whole of higher education.

I first met David back in the early 1980s when I was working for the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) and David was teaching history at Crewe and Alsager College. He was an active member of the CNAA’s Interfaculty Studies Board, a role which took him around the UK, reviewing multi- and inter-disciplinary degree courses at the then polytechnics and colleges of higher education.

David was an excellent board member as well as great company on the many trips to UK higher education institutions. This work probably contributed to his lifelong interest in higher education from a policy and research perspective and as a practitioner and manager. After a period at the then Oxford Polytechnic, where he became deputy director, David moved on to Brighton Polytechnic as director and then vice chancellor of Brighton University after it gained university status in 1992.

For David, becoming a vice chancellor was not the end of the career road. A period as professor of higher education management followed at the Institute of Education in London followed in 2010, by what proved to be his final destination at the University of Oxford as principal of Green Templeton College and professor of higher education management.

Alongside these institutional positions, David was contributing to the academic literature on higher education. Several books emerged, the most recent was published in 2013, The Question of Conscience, higher education and personal responsibility. And there were countless articles, book chapters and reviews, including here on The Conversation.

David began his academic life in Cambridge – he was a student at Clare College – and ended it at Oxford’s Green Templeton College. In between, he built up an almost unrivalled knowledge of the diverse institutional settings for UK higher education and its growth and development over almost 40 years. It was a knowledge-based respect for this diversity that was central to his contributions to higher education and for which he was knighted in 1998.

Throughout his career, David was an active player on the higher education policy scene within the UK. After the CNAA membership, he became a member of the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council and then the Higher Education Funding Council for England. He was also a member of the 1997 National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, the Dearing Committee, and was president of the Society for Research in Higher Education for seven years.

David was rightly much in demand for these national roles to which he brought an unrivalled knowledge of the UK’s diverse higher education system, combined with leadership experiences at several institutions, along with excellent knowledge and active engagement with higher education as a research field.

But David brought a lot of other things to his many roles in UK higher education. He brought excellent communication skills, incisiveness, enormous integrity and honesty, plus a smile on his face and laughter and a sense of fun to the many groups with whom he worked or was a part of. We will miss him.