Obituary: Professor Sydney Urry

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ENGINEERING EDUCATION in Britain has had its critics - it is too scientific, they say, or too specialised, or dull, or does not produce the sort of person that industry needed. Such criticisms could never have been made of the courses run by Sydney Urry. He was an inspiring teacher of engineering, design and technology. He also played a key role in the development of thin-sandwich degree courses and in the planning of the Uxbridge campus of Brunel University.

Sydney Allendale Urry was born in 1925 in Southampton, though his family originally came from the Isle of Wight. After Brockenhurst County High School he went to Southampton University, where he obtained a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He was then directed to Vickers at Weybridge, where he worked on the aeronautical controls of the Viscount, Britain's first commercial turbo-prop aeroplane.

While at Vickers he did some teaching at night school which seems to have convinced him of his vocation, as it was followed by a succession of teaching posts in further education, including one at Kumasi College of Technology in Ghana. In 1960 he was appointed to a teaching post at Brunel and this became his life for the next two decades.

Brunel College of Technology had split from Acton Technical College in 1957 and under the strong leadership of its Principal, Dr James Topping, was pioneering the development of thin-sandwich degree courses, initially in science and engineering in conjunction with local industry, but later also in the social sciences.

Expansion of the college in Acton was halted in 1962, when it was designated a College of Advanced Technology. As such it was to move to a much larger site in Uxbridge. Urry was seconded to work full-time as planning assistant to the Principal and Secretary of the Planning Group. For the next two years he had a strong influence on the building plans that were to transform a derelict market garden site into a university campus for more than 2,000 students.

As a result of the Robbins Report of 1963 Brunel became a university, receiving its charter in June 1966, but it still tried to retain its distinctive thin-sandwich courses. In their first three years, students on these courses spent the period from Easter to the end of September in work placements relevant to their academic studies. Finding suitable placements for an increasing number of undergraduates was a major task and in 1964 a Department of Industrial Training was formed with Syd Urry as head.

This group not only co-ordinated the arrangements for placements but also those for assessing the students' progress in their workplaces. On graduation, many of the students were offered jobs by the organisations where they had worked in previous years and the university careers office grew out of a section of the department. In 1970 the department was renamed the Institute of Industrial Training and Urry was given a personal chair the following year.

He had continued to be much involved in the building programme on the Uxbridge campus, returning to act for a time as planning assistant in 1967 to Topping, who was now the Vice-Chancellor. Perhaps as a result of working closely with Leslie Zisman, the consulting engineer on the project, Urry realised that there was a gap in the educational spectrum: students were being trained for careers in architecture or civil engineering but not for engineering services - the heating, lighting, plumbing, and internal environment systems that have major effects on the layout of large buildings. So he proposed a degree course in building technology and this took its first students in 1972.

Syd Urry believed that the spirit of engineering could best be inculcated through project work that reflected the real life constraints of time and cost as well as technology. His teaching methods also involved the imaginative use of television and video. He had a close rapport with his students, who appreciated his skills as sportsman, raconteur and jazz musician. They, and indeed all his many other friends, were delighted when the university awarded him an honorary degree in 1994.

The savage cuts in grant in the 1980s dealt harshly with the technological universities, while the general streamlining of industry has made it more difficult for employers to provide training places. Urry took early retirement from his full-time professorship in 1981, but continued to be actively involved in teaching at both university and school level. A third edition of the book Design and Technology, which he edited, was at the proof stage; and he was actually on his way to a meeting of A-level examiners when he had a heart attack and died. A man of great integrity and a superb teacher, his contributions to technical education generally and to Brunel University in particular, will not be forgotten.

Stephen Bragg

Sydney Allendale Urry, engineer and educationist: born Southampton 23 January 1925; Lecturer in Engineering, Brunel College of Technology (from 1961 Brunel College of Advanced Technology, from 1966 Brunel University) 1960-62, Planning Assistant to the Principal and Secretary of the Planning Group 1962-64, Head, Department of Industrial Training 1964-71, Professor of Building Technology 1971-81 (Emeritus); married 1947 Audrey Chapman (two sons, one daughter); died Misterton, Somerset 12 June 1999.