Lord Perry of Walton

Successful founding Vice-Chancellor of the Open University
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Walter Laing Macdonald Perry, pharmacologist and university administrator: born Dundee 16 June 1921; MD 1948; Member of Staff, Medical Research Council 1947-52; Director, Department of Biological Standards, National Institute for Medical Research 1952-58; OBE 1957; Professor of Pharmacology, Edinburgh University 1958-68, Vice-Principal 1967-68; Vice-Chancellor, the Open University 1969-81; Kt 1974; created 1979 Baron Perry of Walton; Deputy Leader, SDP peers in the House of Lords 1981-83, 1988-89; FRS 1985; married 1946 Anne Grant (three sons; marriage dissolved 1971), 1971 Catherine Crawley (two sons, one daughter); died London 18 July 2003.

Walter Perry was the hugely successful founding Vice-Chancellor in 1969 of the Open University. At first known as a "university of the air", its aim was to make higher education available by distance learning, with courses open to all, regardless of their educational qualifications.

It was Perry, at times almost single-handed, who laid plans to protect the institution, the first of its type in the world, from being snuffed out in infancy. In the difficult financial circumstances of the end of the Wilson government, Roy Jenkins and the Treasury viewed the Open University as something of a Harold Wilson gimmick. By no means the least of Perry's achievements was to recruit the sceptical incoming Secretary of State for Education in 1970, Margaret Thatcher, to his cause. Even so, had Ian MacLeod, Edward Heath's first Chancellor of the Exchequer, not died prematurely, the Open University might yet have been strangled. Along with the university's Chancellor, Lord Crowther, Perry was able to persuade the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anthony Barber, to give them a reprieve.

Walter Laing MacDonald Perry was born in Dundee in 1921, the son of Fletcher Perry, Head of Customs and Excise in Scotland, and his wife Flora. He was educated at Ayr Academy, Dundee High School and the University of St Andrews, where he studied Medicine. His first job was as a house doctor at the Dundee Royal Infirmary. In 1944 he went to Nigeria, where he was the only qualified physician to a population of half a million. He would describe how, in his mid-twenties, he dealt with major operations, as well as visiting outlying medical centres. He told me that it was this experience which sharpened him into a rough and ready character who would get things done.

On returning to Britain, he had to do a couple of years of National Service and opted to serve as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force. On demobilisation, and after an interview at Mill Hill Medical Research Centre, he joined the MRC and started to work on the challenges of vaccine for poliomyelitis, the devastating effects of which he had seen in East Africa. In 1952 he became director of biological standards in the National Institute of Medical Research, which led to his being hand-picked to be Professor of Pharmacology at Edinburgh University in 1958.

Sir John Crofton, who was then Dean of Edinburgh University Medical School, says:

When I was Dean of the School of Medicine, Walter Perry was responsible for all the pre-clinical work. Besides being an excellent pharmacologist, he had very original ideas about teaching.

Before class exams in one year, he divided students into three groups: the first group attended lectures; the second group did not attend lectures, but did attend seminars in the faculty of Medicine; the third group were simply given a reading list. Perry found that the results of those who were given a reading list were markedly inferior to those who had attended seminars, who in turn were slightly inferior to those who had gone to lectures.

He drew conclusions, which were important later on in the Open Univer- sity, that distance learning could not simply be left to reading, but had to include videos and other modern equipment to take the place of lectures.

In September 1963, at a huge rally at Green's Playhouse in Glasgow, Harold Wilson, then Leader of the Opposition, announced as policy that a future Labour government would set up a "university of the air". Though Wilson said to some that he had thought up the idea on the night train from Euston to Glasgow, this was not really true. A good deal of thought had been given to the project by Michael Young, later Lord Young of Dartington, and others. But to his credit, Wilson persisted when he became Prime Minister.

In November 1963, Perry had asked if he could see me in my capacity as secretary of the Labour Party's standing conference on the sciences. Over lunch, he explained that he was deeply interested in the university of the air. Four years passed, by which time he had become Vice-Principal of Edinburgh University. I introduced him to Jennie Lee, whom Harold Wilson had made Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science with responsibility for the Arts and the task of putting flesh on the bones of the concept of the university of the air.

Lee, as Aneurin Bevan's widow, had a unique relationship with Wilson, who had resigned along- side her late husband and John Freeman from the Attlee government. Perry appealed to Lee, who prevailed on Wilson, with strong support from Michael Swann, then Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh, to take a chance on appointing Perry as the first Vice-Chancellor.

On 23 July 1969, the Open University was established at a charter ceremony at 6 Carlton House Terrace, the home of the Royal Society. Lord Crowther's speech that day summed up Perry's philosophy:

We are open, first as to people. Not for us the carefully regulated escalation from one educational level to the next by which the traditional universities establish their criteria for admission . . . only in recent years have we come to realise how many such people there are, and how large are the gaps in education provision through which they can fall.

The existing system, for all its great expansion, misses and leaves aside a great unused reservoir of human talent and potential. Men and women drop out through the failures in the system, through disadvantages of their environment, through mistakes of their own judgment, through sheer bad luck. These are our primary material. To them we offer a further opportunity.

When I visited Perry at the university's headquarters in Milton Keynes, he would say that the university had no cloisters, a word meaning closed. He would point out that there were no courts or courtyards. The university would be disembodied and airborne. It would flow all over the United Kingdom. He was proud of the fact, as time went on, that it became one of our most potent and persuasive and indeed profitable invisible exports. Every new form of human communication would be examined to see how it could be used to raise and broaden the level of human understanding. Above all, the university was to be open to ideas, as Crowther explained:

It has been said that there are two aspects of education, both necessary. One regards the individual human mind as a vessel, of varying capacity, into which is to be poured as much as it will hold of the knowledge and experience by which human society lives and moves. This is the Martha of education - and we shall have plenty of these tasks to perform - but the Mary regards the human mind more as a fire that has to be set alight and blown with the divine afflatus that also we take as our ambition.

Perry was a superb chooser of people. His first 18 professors were all distinguished in their field or brilliant young men whose promise was fulfilled. For example, he chose Steven Rose, a 30-year-old at Imperial College, College, for the Chair of Biology. He had been strongly recommended by Maurice Wilkins, Nobel Prize winner and Professor of Biophysics at King's College, and Perry's close friend Ritchie Calder (later Lord Ritchie-Calder). Rose, who remained Professor of Biology at the Open University until 1999, said:

When Walter offered me the job, I accepted, provided the O.U. would support research. Walter was adamant that the university was committed to high-quality research as much as to high-quality teaching, and he smoothed the path for successful funding from the MRC. He cared about his colleagues, and he was a social entrepreneur and bon viveur of the highest order. I liked him enormously.

His wife, Professor Hilary Rose, added that "Walter Perry passionately believed that doing good science was about making the world a better place."

Perry was knighted in 1974 and in 1979 was created a life peer with the title of Baron Perry of Walton, after the Walton Hall campus at Milton Keynes which had been built on his insistence to house academic staff and administration services. He retired from the Open University in 1980.

The troubles of the Labour Party of which he had been an on-and-off member troubled him greatly; he joined the SDP and became their spokesman on education, health and social security between 1983-91. But his most valuable work was done as a member of a select committee on science and technology 1985-90 and 1992-97. Perry made important contributions to the range of reports which built up the serious and well-earned reputation of the Lords' committees.

Another immensely valuable, albeit unpopular, cause was his work as an officer of the Research Defence Society. One of his last considerable causes was trying to protect the valuable work of the Huntingdon Research Organisation, the target of so many animal protesters. Perry was prepared to confront the critics by asking them whether, if they or one of their family were life-threateningly ill, they would not be glad of the results of research which could not possibly have been carried out without the use of animals.

Until last week, when I saw him at the Foundation for Science and Technology at the Royal Society, where he was one of the most faithful attenders, Perry continued to be active, asking those quizzical pertinent questions, with a charming, slightly naughty smile. He also made an active contribution to the work of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a city to which he travelled back every weekend.

Tam Dalyell