Bob Boucher: Engineer and gifted university vice-chancellor

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The Independent Online

Bob Boucher had a life of accomplishment as an engineer and academic, heading up leading universities in Sheffield and Manchester and promoting British education and high standards. His sudden death came as a particular shock since he remained, at the age of 68, a keep-fit enthusiast who went running every day, taking part in marathons and half-marathons. He collapsed and died while running.

Although he spent decades in the higher reaches of university life he was no dry academic, as Dr Christine Sexton of Sheffield University recalled. "The main memory I have of Bob is his inability to tell a joke without laughing," she said. "He would set off with best intentions, often at a prestigious event such as a graduation dinner, and as soon as he started the audience would know what was about to happen. Soon he would start to giggle, then he'd start to laugh, and by the time he got to the end of the joke – if he ever did – the audience had usually forgotten how it had started, but were laughing hysterically with him."

Born in Wembley, he attended St Ignatius College, a Jesuit school, before studying mechanical engineering at London's Borough Polytechnic. There he was president of the students' union, travel secretary and editor of the Rag magazine. He went to the University of Nottingham in 1962 to complete his degree studies and take a PhD. After a year as an ICI postdoctoral Fellow in Nottingham, he moved to Belfast as first research fellow and then lecturer in mechanical engineering at Queen's University.

In 1970 he moved to Sheffield University as a lecturer and later group head for fluid mechanics and thermodynamics: he was to spend 25 years there. He was promoted to a personal chair in 1985 and two years later became head of department. He greatly improved its academic ratings, so that by the early 1990s Sheffield was ranked in the top tier of UK mechanical engineering departments for both teaching and research. He was noted for his emphasis on the international dimension, introducing the UK's first engineering degree course with Japanese studies.

He gained an international reputation for his research in the specialist field of fluidics, in which the flow of a fluid is manipulated to produce effects without the use of moving parts. His research found widespread applications in the oil, gas and nuclear industries. He also developed a technique for separating out ash and pyrites – sources of acid rain pollution – from pulverised coal, using a superconducting magnet.

The practical value of his work was seen when the huge Redcar Blast Furnace had to be closed down due to excessive vibrations. It was quickly put back into operation after Boucher diagnosed the fault and re-designed the system.

The year 1995 brought a move as vice-chancellor to the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). There he concentrated on expanding the biosciences alongside the institution's traditional strengths in engineering and the physical sciences. His innovative creation of the university's first clinical chairs was strongly opposed in some quarters but proved successful. He is also credited with emphasising the subjects of business and management.

In the mid-1990s, together with other academics he railed against university funding cuts, complaining that "the stranglehold of government parsimony" could lead to "the UK's withdrawal from international competition in science and engineering." He also took exception to what he saw as governmental restrictions on international students coming to Britain. Accusing the Labour government of "harbouring a distressing disregard for the views of the education sector," he warned: "These wretched policies simply further impede our capacity to attract the best researchers, and UK plc will suffer in consequence."

Spending virtually his entire career in the north of England, he insisted that the education system should not be over-concentrated in London and the south. He described himself as "an adopted Sheffielder." One of his other concerns was the improvement of quality in higher education, an interest which led him to become Director of the Higher Education Quality Council and to serve on numerous similar committees.

In his own specialty of engineering he was a council member of the Royal Academy of Engineering and chairman of the Engineering Professors' Conference. He was also a member of the board of the British Council, chairing a number of its specialist advisory groups. He went on to become a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and to hold numerous directorships and committee posts. In 2001 he moved back from UMIST to Sheffield, where as vice-chancellor he oversaw a major building programme which provided new and updated premises for the arts, music, dentistry, social sciences, the biosciences and other disciplines.

After his retirement in 2007 he served as deputy lieutenant for South Yorkshire and chairman of the Sheffield Museums and Galleries Trust. He maintained his international connections as an adviser on higher education in Singapore and Japan.

Professor Geof Tomlinson, a colleague and friend, said of him: "He had high integrity and drive, and took a keen personal interest in people. He had an incredibly warm and friendly approach, linked with a large smile."

In 2000 he was appointed CBE for services to higher education and the engineering profession.

David McKittrick

Robert Francis Boucher, engineer and university vice-chancellor; born London 25 April 1940; Nottingham University (PhD 1966); Lecturer, Queen's University, Belfast 1968-70; Lecturer, University of Sheffield 1970-76; Senior Lecturer, 1976-85; Professor of Mechanical Engineering, 1985-95; Pro-Vice-Chancellor, 1992-95; Chairman, Engineering Professors' Council, 1993-95; Senator, Engineering Council, 1995-99; Principal and Vice-Chancellor, UMIST, 1995-2000; CBE, 2000; Vice-Chancellor, University of Sheffield, 2001-07; married 1965 Rosemary Ellen Maskell (two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died 25 March 2009.