Lord Perry of Walton

Lord Perry of Walton, academic

Born: 16 June, 1921, in Angus

Died: 17 July, 2003, in London, aged 82

WHEN Harold Wilson came up with his brainchild of a "university of the air" in the early 1960s, he faced opposition from both academia and the House of Commons. But the then prime minister persevered and by 1970 the Open University was up and running with an adventurous and imaginative vice-chancellor, Walter Perry.

He was a bold advocate of the scheme and proved an ideal appointment as its first leader. Charismatic and with a warm, welcoming personality, he was much admired by colleagues after a decade as professor of pharmacology at Edinburgh University. The fact that the Open University became so soon established and accepted was largely due to Perry’s drive, energy and sheer hard work.

Walter Laing Macdonald Perry was taught at Morgan Academy in Dundee, Ayr Academy and Dundee High School. He read pharmacology at St Andrews and graduated in 1943. He worked at Dundee Royal Infirmary and then accepted a challenging post as a colonial doctor overseeing a large area in Nigeria. He performed operations under rudimentary conditions and tended the ill with a commitment that was never to leave him.

Perry held various research posts on his return to the UK in 1947 before becoming professor of pharmacology at Edinburgh in 1958. He stayed in that post until 1968 but added to it dean of medicine (1965-67) and vice-principal (1967-68). To all these he brought a reforming zeal which reflected his desire to improve teaching standards.

Perry wanted the medical school to be more out-reaching and to involve colleagues in the creation of the syllabus. New methods were being adopted by other universities and he was well aware that, to maintain the department as a world leader, he had to encourage the use of modern technology and more enlightened teaching methods.

Russell Taylor, who was administrator during Perry's time at Edinburgh, remembers him with much affection. "He was trusted by colleagues and students alike," he said. "He was extremely popular and had a wonderful way of resolving problems, quietly and with the minimum of fuss. He got on well with the rector of the time, a young man called Gordon Brown. But then Walter got on with everyone."

When Perry was offered the post of vice-chancellor of the Open University, it was too big a challenge for someone of his agile mind to turn down. However, he insisted that it would not be a desk job, but very much hands-on and directly involved in teaching. He got on well with Jennie Lee, Wilson’s arts minister, and the six years of the OU’s creation were challenging for both of them. Neither ever wavered and after Edward Heath’s government took over in 1970, Perry had some acerbic meetings with the chancellor, Iain Macleod, who considered the whole project something of a white elephant.

There was some carping from the establishment about the OU being centred at Milton Keynes - in fact it was in a glorious old house called Walton Hall in the heart of the new town. But, worse, the pessimists suggested that it would only offer degrees to those wanting to top up their knowledge of social and arts subjects. Perry was gratified to discover that, of the 50,000 annual applicants in the first few years, the majority were from people in their mid-20s who wanted to further their education and advance their job prospects. The OU courses had the added advantage of being able to be followed by those in remote locations and of fitting in with jobs and domestic responsibilities.

"Distance teaching", as it came to be known, was carefully managed to ensure it was no less committed and professional because it was off campus. Perry devised the syllabus, which was a mixture of broadcasting, correspondence and tutorials. New material was prepared by teams of academics, often under his personal supervision.

Margaret Thatcher, then education minister, drove to Milton Keynes and spent a day with Perry. She was as abrasive and full of questions as ever, but she got as good as she gave - and Perry received her full support, although the Treasury grant to the OU was put under severe scrutiny.

The OU was one of the most exciting educational innovations of the post-war years. It is credited as a lasting memorial to Wilson and Jennie Lee. In fact, it is a memorial to the tenacity, shrewd management and academic cunning of Walter Perry.

One of his principal achievements was to ensure a high quality of staff. He immediately appointed 18 first class professors and followed up with some inspired younger lecturers who became as committed to the OU concept as Perry. He was often unorthodox in his decision-making but had the ability to think on his feet: he understood the problems administrative staff were experiencing when setting up a totally new system and he helped by installing the most recent technology.

The success of the OU, however, has not only been in the numbers it attracts annually: now more than 100,000 from the UK and 16,000 from abroad. Perry ensured that honours degrees were soon introduced and he was always keen to expand the subjects covered.

On his retirement in 1981, he became active in the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat. He was deputy leader of the party in the Upper House for a time and was a most knowledgeable member of the science and technology select committee.

Perry was given a life peerage in 1979 and was a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He served with distinction on numerous academic groups (notably the University Grants Committee), received honorary degrees from Dundee and Stirling universities and was awarded the Wellcome Gold Medal in 1994.

Perry was twice married. His first marriage, to Anne Grant, was dissolved in 1971. That year he wed Catherine Crawley, who survives him, as do three sons from his first marriage and two sons and a daughter from his second.

ALASDAIR STEVEN