Open Eye: The PhD student who knew too much

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The Independent Online
The question 'who examines the examiners?' is not some obscure conundrum on University Challenge

The correct answer could be Dr Edward Brech, who acquired his doctorate from the Open University Business School, aged 85. His examiners, after reading his thesis on the history of management theory, invited him to quiz them about their knowledge which could not match his own erudition. Following this act of humility they recommended he receive his degree.

[It has to be stated, since academics take this seriously, that his methodology and documentation completely fulfilled the requirements for a degree to be awarded.]

In a world where youth culture is so dominant, Edward Brech is an extraordinary argument for vibrant old age and the accumulation of wisdom. He attributes his physical activity to an active mind.

Poised for recognition by the Guinness Book of Records as the the UK's oldest PhD graduate and the only one in the history of management theory, he gives new meaning to the term 'mature student'.

Born into Edwardian England of Hungarian and Bavarian parents, he lives in well-shrubbed Surrey with Irene, his wife of 63 years. A mere lass, in her late eighties, she is a further testimony to long, active and healthy retirement.

Dr Brech is more than a mere late developer with a well ordered bookcase. Inside this small, twinkling man is a passionate message. For him, too many management and business schools are ignorant of the history of their discipine and suffer as a result.

"They know nothing about what happened, prior to 1970-75," he says.

In fact, he points out, the history of management theory is scarcely recognised or taught at all. Much of his 'golden age' has been spent seeking to rectify that. His PhD is expanding into a five-volume history of management that could fill a substantial gap on anyone's bookshelf.

But Dr Brech's comments are not made from the top of an ivory tower, despite the idyllic back garden full of spring bloom.

Now 90 and into his tenth decade, he spent more than 30 years with Urwick Orr and Partners, a large management consultancy. During his 'working' life he authored a standard textbook, The Principles and Practice of British Management, which sold 80,000 copies.

When it was first published in the 1950s, MBAs were unheard of and management students were in technical and commercial colleges. As the status of management education developed, embraced by the universities, other texts sprang up. But these did not include histories.

The need to fill these lacunae has motivated Edward Brech ever since he 'retired finally' 13 years ago, and it led to his PhD work.

He describes his subject, disconcertingly, as 'a hobby'. But in research terms it was no soft touch: "The archives are widely scattered and in many cases destroyed. It gave me a lot of sympathy for academics."

He soon concluded that the work would best be carried out alongside an academic body. After a few false starts he tried the Open University.

He candidly admits he did not even know the OU had a business school. But Derek Pugh, director of research at the OUBS, has a pioneering reputation and took a warm interest in the proposal.

Pugh counselled him, however, that there was no one at the OU who could offer him anything in the way of knowledge.

Despite this apparent drawback the new PhD student got down to work on The Concept and Gestation of the Central Professional Institute of Management in Britain 1902-1949.

On submission, the 'oral' took place before Pugh, Professor Andrew Thomson as internal examiner, and John Child of Cambridge. Graduation followed in Brussels, allowing participation by the Brechs' daughter, Dutch son- in-law and four grandchildren who live in Maastricht.

In a sense, however, Edward Brech's doctoral researches were simply an early phase of a growing interest at the OUBS in the history of management theory.

Andrew Thomson with Brech - now a visiting research fellow - set up a management history research group. Dr Brech is still pressing for the subject to be adopted into management school curricula generally.

He was subsequently invited to supervise another PhD who was looking at the history of management services in information technology.

This may well be a fruitful relationship because while Dr Brech's scholarship is indisputable, his working environment is a computer-free zone.

He rationalises this: "I think more rapidly than I write so, by the time I have hand-written something, it usually comes out right."

Given a basic belief in 'the good old days', studies of such topics as Productivity 1921-74 and Management education and development 1852-1979, for example, could hold vital clues about wrong turns and present -day shortcomings.

There are not many management schools today that can offer that kind of historic vision.