The Society for Research into Higher Education

David Watson

Professor Sir David Watson 1949-2015

Leave a comment

SRHE President 2005-2012

It is with great sadness that the Society announce the death of Professor Sir David Watson, SRHE President from 2005-2012, who passed away on Sunday 8 February after a very short illness.

Throughout his career David sought to develop an understanding of higher education through research. He strongly supported the idea that higher education was a social good. As President of SRHE, David’s annual address to conference (always the best attended keynote) explored the relationship of higher education and society in ways that urged members of the research community to search for evidence on how current policies and practices were affecting society more generally as well as on students and staff in the sector.

David was a staunch supporter of the work of the Society for Research into Higher Education and the Society’s President from 2005 to 2012, standing down at his own insistence, as was typical of David, otherwise we would never have let him go. He felt that his seven years as President (two more than he signed up for) was, in his own words, “enough from me”.

He was wrong of course, as there could never be enough of what David had to say, the way that he said it and the breadth of knowledge, understanding, weight of compassion and sheer humanity that imbued everything he said and wrote about higher education.

We will not see his like again.

His legacy in terms of his written work will remain with us. What his colleagues will remember most is the friendship and support he gave to everyone, the way he touched so many lives and supported so many careers. He believed absolutely in collegiality within the academy and fostering respect between colleagues at all times. In this regard he led by supreme example.

Professor Yvonne Hiller, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Brighton and Chair of the Society during David’s tenure as President was also a personal friend and has summed up for us how we felt about him perfectly:

“Sir David was one of the few truly honest men who combined intellectual prowess with genuine concern and friendship for colleagues. He was particularly self-effacing when encouraging newer researchers to engage with examination of higher education. His genuine warmth for colleagues in the research community was much appreciated by newer and fully established researchers alike”.

David was keen to return to being an “ordinary” member of the Society, as he had been for over 25 years, and, again in his own words, in signing off as President he said;

” I look forward to returning to the ranks for many years to come, from where I can alternate-like most engaged members-between being a scourge and a supporter of the establishment.”

True to his word David was with us throughout the SRHE Conference in late December 2014, attending every session of presented papers, contributing from the ranks, sharing with us his plans for his keynote to the Society’s 50th anniversary Colloquium on 26 June 2015 marking 50 years of research into higher education. Once again he was to be the headline act. On 5th January 2015 he explained to me why he would have to withdraw and urged the Society to press on make it the great success he knew it would be.

We intend to do just that.

Helen Perkins, Director SRHE for and on behalf of SRHE


Personal message from the SRHE Director Helen Perkins

The news of David’s illness and his death following so swiftly after he shared this news with us has affected his many friends and colleagues within the Society profoundly.  Tributes and reminiscences, of help and advice willingly given, and the countless ways in which he supported individuals and their careers, have flooded in from members of the Society worldwide.

Although I had worked with David on all manner of HE projects and Committees since the early 1980’s, particularly as an academic/employer partnership on higher education and employment issues–our version of “good cop bad cop” where David was always of course the good guy- it was actually a total random act of chance that he was appointed SRHE President in the same month and year I was appointed Director, no one had any idea we already knew each other well.

As our President he did not believe that it was his role to interfere with the day to day running of the Society or its governance.  He was unstinting in the time he gave behind the scenes in support and in providing wise counsel when it was sought-which was often. He never once turned down a request to speak publicly on our behalf or at a Society event and was always the most articulate, erudite original as well as challenging and amusing speaker.

He is, and always will be, without a shadow of doubt one of the very finest people I have ever met.


Professor Sir David Watson Academic Career

Sir David read History at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was a Choral Exhibitioner and Open Scholar. He was a Thouron Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was awarded his doctorate in intellectual history in 1975.

His academic interests were in the history of ideas and in higher education policy and 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 a member of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s National Commission on Education (whose report Learning to Succeed was published in 1993), and 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). He also chaired the national Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, and co-authored its report Learning Through Life (2009).

He was the elected chair of the Universities Association for Continuing Education between 1994 and 1998, chaired the Longer Term Strategy Group of Universities UK between 1999 and 2005, and was President of the Society for Research into Higher Education between 2005 and 2012. He was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2008 and the Times Higher Education Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

Sir David was knighted in 1998 for services to higher education.

His many publications include Margaret Fuller: an American romantic (1988), Developing professional education (with Hazel Bines, 1992), Managing the university curriculum (with Jean Bocock, 1994), Lifelong learning and the university (with Richard Taylor, 1998), Managing Strategy (2000), New Directions in Professional Higher Education (with Tim Katz and Tom Bourner, 2000), Higher education and the lifecourse (with Maria Slowey, 2003), Managing Civic and Community Engagement (2007), The Dearing Report: ten years on (edited with Michael Amoah, 2007), The Question of Morale (2009), The Engaged University (with Robert Hollister, Susan Stroud and Elizabeth Babcock, 2011), Learning Transitions in Higher Education (with David Scott, Gwyneth Hughes, Penny-Jane Burke, Carol Evans, and Catherine Walter, 2013), The Question of Conscience: higher education and personal responsibility (2013), as well as over 400 articles, chapters in books, and reviews.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

Leave a Reply