Obituary: Dr Peter Clarke CBE, visionary principal seized opportunities in oil industry to shape future of university

Dr Peter Clarke CBE
Dr Peter Clarke CBE
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Born: 18 March, 1922, in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.Died: 26 October, 2012, in Aberdeen, aged 90

Peter Clarke was a chemist and visionary principal who helped to shape the future of one of Scotland’s leading modern universities.

An academic, who also had extensive experience in industry, he joined Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon’s Institute of Technology in 1970 with a strong belief in the importance of marrying vocational education with the needs of the real world.

His appointment coincided with the early days of the North Sea oil industry and he set about reorganising the college and looking for opportunities in the expanding energy sector.

Under his tenure the institute began offering courses tailored to the lucrative industry, which was revitalising the north-east port, and created commercial units such as the hugely successful offshore survival centre that trains thousands of personnel in vital safety drills.

Today it holds the accolade of Best Modern University in the UK with a campus that includes an engineering school housed in the eponymous Clarke Building.

His own roots were in ­Nottinghamshire, where he was brought up, fairly impoverished, during the depression.

His father, whose older brothers went to school with DH Lawrence, had survived the Great War after volunteering at 19. Various jobs followed but he was unemployed for much of the 1930s when Dr Clarke’s mother, the first of three influential women in his life, was the main breadwinner.

She was a primary teacher and, as a schoolboy, he planned to follow her into the profession and teach chemistry. But by the time he graduated in 1942, from University College, Nottingham, with a London University BSc degree in chemistry, the Second World War was well under way.

He was directed as a trainee to ICI Explosives Group and two months later found himself at Ardeer, in Ayrshire, as shift superintendent of a newly built shadow munitions factory. At 21, he was in charge of a workforce of 300 women and 60 men making incendiary bombs.

After the war, he returned to Nottingham and gained a teaching certificate. He became senior chemistry master at Buxton College in 1947, the same year he married, Ethel, who 
became the second supportive and influential woman in his life.

A couple of years later he moved to Huddersfield Technical College as lecturer in organic chemistry. And in 1956, he took a post as assistant chief chemist at British Enka Limited, before being promoted to chief chemist and then technical manager, by which time he had also been elected a fellow of the Royal ­Institute of Chemistry.

The remainder of the 1960s saw him move up the ranks in academia, firstly as senior lecturer at the Royal College of ­Advanced Technology in Salford, then head of chemistry and biology at Nottingham Regional College of Technology and, from 1965-70, vice-principal of Huddersfield College of Technology.

He was undoubtedly the right man in the right place at the right time several times. But he had essentially engineered his own career, frequently changing jobs in search of promotion rather than as he put it “waiting for dead men’s shoes”.

He arrived in Aberdeen in August 1970, spending his first month at a caravan site at Hazlehead before moving to more comfortable accommodation.

During his inaugural address as head of Robert Gordon’s Institute of Technology (RGIT), he laid out his vision, predicting considerable expansion in tertiary education, particularly in the vocational area.

He urged the staff to ensure the institution met the challenge by providing new and innovative courses to fulfil the changing needs of industry and commerce. Over the next 15 years, he proved an excellent role model: he established a course committee system; ­re-arranged RGIT’s school structure and set up faculties of art and architecture, arts, engineering and science.

In the 1960s, there had been 
an agreement that RGIT would concentrate on mechanical and electrical engineering while Aberdeen University looked after civil engineering, though joint teaching 
continued.

Not only did he disentangle 
RGIT from the arrangement, he ­ensured it was totally responsible for its own engineering courses and was largely instrumental in guaranteeing that it responded to the educational and training needs of the oil industry.

He appointed a senior lecturer to liaise specifically with the major players in the energy field and to find out what they needed – a move that gave the institute a good decade’s head start on the competition.

Students started work placements in the burgeoning industry, and courses, such as drilling technology and offshore engineering, were tailor-made for the oil business. Commercial units were established – the Offshore Survival Centre, the Centre for Offshore Health and the Viscom enterprise which provided video-base safety briefings for personnel flying offshore.

He embraced the energy industry opportunities wholeheartedly, including taking up the suggestion by Aberdeen Journals to develop the Bruce Oil Management Game, based on the hypothetical Bruce field and launched, in 1974, to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s birth. Several years later Hamilton Brothers named one of its fields Bruce and Dr Clarke wrote to congratulate them on an “excellent choice”.

He pointed out RGIT and Aberdeen Journals were already using the name but did not recall receiving a reply. He retired in 1985 having presided over 15 years in which student numbers had doubled and the institute’s reputation had grown considerably, paving the way for it to achieve university status, as the Robert Gordon University, in 1992.

Dr Clarke, who had been president of the UK Association of Principals of Colleges and was made a CBE in 1983, went on to receive numerous honours in the education field. He shared his knowledge with a wide range of bodies as a member of Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce Council, the Scottish Technical Education Council and the board of Aberdeen Shipbuilders Ltd.

He chaired others including the Council for National ­Academic Awards’ Scottish committee, Aberdeen Enterprise Trust and the Scottish Vocational Education Council and was a trustee of the Aberdeen-based charity the Gordon Cook Foundation to advance aspects of education and training encouraging character development and citizenship.

A man who was constantly busy and not a great indulger of leisure pursuits bar running – he completed his third Aberdeen marathon at the age of 63 – his industrious nature was no doubt a product of his childhood.

Looking back years later he acknowledged: “In my youth I had soon realised that escape from poverty meant study, qualifications, experience, contacts and resolve. It did not seem so at the time but I realise I was fortunate that I was stimulated by shortage of many distractions that were part of life for others – such as easy life, luxuries, radio, entertainment, bathroom, hot running water etc.

“To have what you want is riches but to be able to do without is strength. It’s not where you start from that counts but where you 
finish.”

Widowed in 1999, he is survived by his sons David and Robin, grandsons Chester and Roland, and by the woman who was the third major influence on his life, his former secretary Marguerite whom he married two years ago.

ALISON SHAW