Obituary: Professor Sir Graham Hills, principal and vice-chancellor, University of Strathclyde

Born: Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, 9 April, 1926. Died: Edinburgh, 9 February, 2014, aged 87

Professor Sir Graham Hills: Chemist whose practical vision was to open academia. Picture: Strathclyde University

SIR Graham Hills was a distinguished chemist, a much respected university leader and a valued public servant. This short assessment suggests an easy progression from laboratory bench to professorial chair and, ultimately, senior university office. But like much of Graham’s life, his career path was unorthodox, not straightforward and required him to surmount many significant obstacles.

Born in Leigh-on-Sea, Graham won a scholarship to his local grammar school but left with the equivalent of O-levels. His family were bombed out of their home during the Second World War and the young Graham had to take work as a laboratory assistant at the chemical firm, May and Baker. This introduced him to chemistry and gave him practical experience of industry – something he would emphasise in his career.

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He enrolled as a part-time student at Birkbeck College and through evening classes and weekend study, while the college was being repeatedly bombed, he was able to complete his BSc in chemistry in 1946. Given this experience, it is no surprise that Graham became a powerful, persuasive advocate for widening access to higher education. He received his doctorate from Birkbeck in 1950.

His first lecturing position was at Imperial College, where he learned the importance of inculcating practical skills. Graham moved in 1962 to a chair in physical chemistry at the University of Southampton; these were the heady days of the Robbins Report and expansion of higher education and Graham supported the expansion of the university, while enhancing its reputation and profile.

By the early 1970s, Graham felt UK higher education had lost its way and was becoming unnecessarily fractious and lacking coherence. His typically selfless response was to become dean of science and deputy vice-chancellor at Southampton. This gave him the senior management and leadership experience that was so attractive to Strathclyde when looking for a principal to replace Sir Sam ­Curran.

Graham was the perfect choice to lead Strathclyde, given the importance he placed on practical skills, the value of knowledge and industrial partnerships. It also brought him full circle by leading the institution that appointed George Birkbeck as a founding professor.

But 1980 was not the most propitious time to take up the office of principal. It was the time of the infamous “UGC Letter”, which heralded a period of cuts to higher education budgets; however, Strathclyde was better placed than most to weather the storm because an early retirement scheme had already been devised and Graham’s emphasis on building links outside academia enabled new sources of funding.

Strathclyde’s finances soon improved and expansion of the university resumed. Marland House was purchased from BT in 1987 and new student residences were built on campus. The Barony Church was bought and restored for use as a ceremonial hall. This programme of redevelopment complemented the far broader regeneration taking place in Glasgow at the time.

Graham’s time as principal was characterised by a desire to broaden access to higher education and by an expansive approach which saw then emerging disciplines, such as laser physics and optoelectronics, brought into the curriculum and a large crop of talented academics attracted to Strathclyde by his vision.

He was committed to a vision of a better managed university responsive to student needs and able to provide society with value for money. He regarded good teaching as an area where insufficient focus and attention had previously been given. His emphasis on research, balanced with high-quality teaching, international links and business partnerships resonated completely with the ethos of “useful learning” on which the university was founded. He was not afraid to be controversial and his advocacy of a student voucher scheme based on the idea that vouchers would effectively act as bursaries, tailored according to student choice and financial circumstance, got him into hot water in certain quarters.

Sir Graham was always his own man and more than willing to challenge accepted wisdom. Not surprisingly for someone whose declared hobby was “rocking the boat”, he loved to twist the tails of his fellow vice-chancellors and wrote numerous mischievous letters to ­newspapers.

He liked to get things done and had no time for what he referred to as “the can’t be done brigade” but was also a humorous man and an accomplished after-dinner speaker.

He retired from the university in 1991 and immediately took up the new, and highly significant, challenge of investigating how the long-cherished idea of a university for the Highlands and Islands could be delivered. His solution was to recommend in 1992 that a federal institution, based on existing FE colleges, was the ideal structure. Within a decade, the UHI Millennium Institute had been established and, after another decade, the University of the Highlands and Islands gained university status. Sir Graham was rewarded with one of the Millennium Institute’s first fellowships and the honorary presidency of the university’s Development Trust.

Sir Graham had many external interests and undertook a range of public duties. He served a five-year term as the BBC’s national governor for Scotland and held posts with organisations as varied as the Advisory Council on Science and Technology, the Society of Chemical Industry, the Scottish Post Office, Scottish Enterprise, Friends of Glasgow Cathedral and Quarriers Homes. He was a Liberal councillor for a while and a Kirk elder.

Sir Graham’s academic achievements were recognised through a knighthood in 1988 and through many fellowships and honorary degrees, from institutions including the universities of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Lodz and Waterloo, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

Sir Graham Hills made a considerable contribution to public life in Scotland and the UK and laid the foundations for Strathclyde as a leading international, technological university. When he was presented for his honorary degree from Strathclyde in 1991, he was described as “a remarkable man, a man of vision, intellect and compassion whose considerable talents were used for the benefit of the university on the local national and international stage”.

There can be no more fitting epitaph.

His second wife, Mary, received an honorary doctorate from Strathclyde on the same day as her husband. She predeceased him, along with his first wife, Brenda, and they are survived by three daughters, a son and four grandchildren.