Duncan Cameron

Founding Secretary of Heriot-Watt


Duncan Inglis Cameron, university administrator: born Glasgow 26 August 1927; Assistant Accountant, Edinburgh University 1952-65; Director of Administration and Secretary, Heriot-Watt University 1965-90; Chairman of Council, Royal Scottish Geographical Society 1983-88; OBE 1990; married 1950 Elizabeth Heron (died 2000; two sons, one daughter); died Edinburgh 7 May 2006.

Duncan Cameron was the founding secretary at Heriot-Watt University, serving for a quarter of a century from 1965, the year before it received its Royal Charter. Any university is highly dependent on the calibre of the university secretary - not least because the secretary de facto controls the university moneybags. Cameron had an unusual ability to see solutions to problems.

Heriot-Watt University was originally the School of Arts of Edinburgh, founded in 1821; it takes its name from the inventor James Watt (from 1852 it was the Watt Institution and School of Arts) and the royal jeweller George Heriot (it merged with George Heriot's Hospital in the 1870s). In 2006 it prides itself on being one of Britain's leading universities for business and industry.

In his Heriot-Watt University: an illustrated history (2004), Patrick O'Farrell pays tribute to Cameron's professional competence, excellent judgement and acute memory. Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the university's Chancellor from 1991 until earlier this year, commends Cameron's "great zeal" and leadership qualities: "He had a marvellous understanding of the complexities of building up a university in its early stages." Unlike many university secretaries, Cameron was not cast by the students as an ogre; Stefan Kay, a former president of the Student Union, told O'Farrell, "I was never turned away empty-handed."

Duncan Cameron was born in 1927 into a professional family in Glasgow. From the academically rigorous Glasgow High School he went to Glasgow University, where he studied Law. After doing his National Service, 1945-48, flying in the RAF, he became a chartered accountant's apprentice with Alfred Tongue & Co and, from 1951, a qualified assistant at Cooper Bros & Co. Then he changed course to become, in 1952, an assistant accountant at Edinburgh University. After 13 years he was chosen as Secretary of the new Heriot-Watt University.

It was thanks to Cameron's initiative that, in 1967, Heriot-Watt created one of the first university chairs in accountancy and finance. He had the wisdom to insist that the first year should be "an academic year for all trainee accountants": only after they had had a year of general university education could they go on to a BA in accountancy and finance.

In 1968, after Cameron had made a visit to the University of New South Wales, where he discussed the organisation of university and industrial links on which pioneer work was being done in Australia, he prepared a paper which led to the establishment in 1969 of Unilink, one of the first industrial liaison units in British academia. No one took greater advantage of this than the first Professor of Physics at Heriot-Watt, Professor Des Smith, who recalls:

There was the quartet of the Chancellor, Alec Douglas-Home, the Chairman of the Court, Alick Buchanan Smith, Lord Balerno and Duncan Cameron. They backed and inspired the idea of a research park and formed the perfect team in steering developments such as the highly successful Edinburgh Instruments.

Cameron was particularly interested in the use of dedicated technology transfer units to provide an educational research and development service to industry. Such units included the Institute of Offshore Engineering, Computer Application Services, the Medical Liaison Unit and the Marine Science Unit, which he made an integral part of the university.

Among his many services to Scotland was the chairmanship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, 1983-88. Their secretary, David Munro, says that this famous old institution, with its wonderful library, might have collapsed had it not been for Cameron's enthusiasm. On a national basis, Cameron's main contribution was in his membership of that much-maligned but necessary organisation the University Central Council on Admissions (Ucca, now Ucas), where he served from 1967 until 1990.

Duncan Cameron could appear rather dour but occasionally, of an evening, he would light up, reminiscing with real, discerning wit. One of his proudest achievements was in bringing Norwegian students in large numbers to Heriot-Watt. For this he was honoured by the King of Norway with the Order of St Olaf.

Tam Dalyell

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