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Obituary: Professor James Maraj

JAMES MARAJ was the first President of the Commonwealth of Learning, set up in 1988 following a Commonwealth meeting of heads of state in Vancouver, to encourage the development and sharing of distance-learning resources and technologies across the Commonwealth, in the interests of students anxious to have access to open learning.

He was one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. I worked very closely with him for five years from 1988 to 1993 when he was president and I was chairman of the council. I had never met him before, although I had heard much. Neither of our two positions was easy, his, as chief executive, more difficult than mine. Yet it was always challenging. Our personal relationship was crucial to the success of a new and unprecedented organisation.

I had heard of his reputation as a difficult person with whom to work. Yet I found him a perfect partner, a man of exceptional vision and of equally exceptional determination. One reason why he had gained his reputation for being difficult was that he would never suffer fools gladly. He would never accept the second best in people or in policies. In Vancouver he did not want everything to settle down prematurely into established routines. There was always a new idea to pursue. My heart warmed to him.

He was a perfect Commonwealth man, although that did not mean that he neglected the rest of the world or, least of all, that he put his trust in London or British ministers in particular. He even won the decoration in 1982 of Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur.

Born in Trinidad in 1930, he came to know the Pacific as well as the Atlantic, and in 1979 was nominated Pacific Person of the Year. The Pacific linked Canada and Australia, both countries which he served. After a brilliant academic start (a double first in psychology and education from the University of the West Indies), he quickly became Head of the Institute of Education in Trinidad and at the age of 40 was appointed Director of Education in the recently created Commonwealth Secretariat in Marlborough House, London.

No one could have carried out more imaginatively and efficiently the manifold and very diverse duties that he himself identified. After five strenuous years, however, he continued his Commonwealth journey when he was appointed Vice- Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific in 1975, becoming so much of a public figure in Fiji that he was later made permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Head of the Prime Minister's office and High Commissioner of Fiji in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and India.

Wherever he travelled education was high on Maraj's list of priorities - highly appropriately, "distance education" after he became founding president of the Commonwealth of Learning in 1988. In between his Commonwealth posts he had contributed greatly to international education as a servant of the World Bank, monitoring and evaluating its many scattered educational and development projects in different parts of the Third World - projects to which he and it attached great importance. From the vantage point of Vancouver, Maraj's previous position was to be of great importance also: it added authority to a new institution that had more ideas than resources. All his contacts - and he was proud of them - were invaluable, not least because they were not confined to people in the limited world of distance education.

Throughout his life a good university man - he had taken his doctorate in Birmingham (Joseph Chamberlain would have admired him) - he was interested in "dual-mode universities" (providing education on site as well as distance learning) as they have come to be called. Communication technology was instrumental for him: the objects of all education were to bring out the best in everyone who had access to it, and widening the access was of crucial importance in the interests of people, countries and the world.

He found time (with difficulty) for other things and other people, including his family, and he was a Commonwealth man in one final way which was not merely symbolic, through cricket. He had played for Trinidad, and before he travelled round the Commonwealth for educational purposes he had travelled round it unofficially in the company of some of the century's greatest cricketers, men like Garfield Sobers.

It was fitting that I learned the sad news of his death from Queensland, where so many great cricket matches had been played, from his son, also called James. He was buried in Brisbane, after a family service, leaving behind him his beloved wife and their four children.

Asa Briggs

James Ajodhya Maraj, educationist, diplomat and international civil servant: born 28 September 1930; Senior Lecturer, University of West Indies 1965- 70, Head, Institute of Education 1968-70; Director, Education Division, Commonwealth Secretariat 1970-72, Commonwealth Assistant Secretary General 1973-75; Vice-Chancellor, University of South Pacific 1975-82; Senior Evaluation Officer, World Bank 1982-84; High Commissioner for Fiji in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore 1985-86; Permanent Secretary, Prime Minister's Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Civil Aviation, Fiji 1986-88; High Commissioner to India 1986-87; President and Chief Executive Office, Commonwealth of Learning 1988-95; Special Adviser, University of South Africa 1997-99; married 1951 Etress Ouditt (two sons, two daughters); died Brisbane, Queensland 3 April 1999.