Obituary: Sir James Tait

JAMES TAIT was one of that doughty breed of Scottish engineers renowned both for their technical accomplishments and for their role in the development of engineering education. In 1966 he was the first Vice- Chancellor of the City University, London, and can be said to have created that university through his vision, determination and ability.

In the mid-1950s, the government had one of its periodic anxieties about engineering higher education and designated as "Colleges of Advanced Technology" (CATs) about a dozen of the largest technical colleges up and down the country. There were three in London - including the Northampton Polytechnic, destined to become London's second university. Tait became its Principal in 1957.

The CATs were firmly wedded to the "sandwich" method of engineering education, in which students spent six months of each calendar year in the college and six months training in industry. Tait was a leading national champion of the sandwich principle, which he claimed was first introduced in Scotland at the beginning of the century.

The following decade was one of great challenge and expansion in higher education. In steering the development of Northampton CAT, Tait confirmed his reputation as an outstanding administrator guided by a clear academic vision. He encouraged substantial academic development at the highest levels and supervised the planning of new heavy laboratories for electrical, civil and mechanical engineering. All this was accomplished with a characteristic twinkle of the eye which will be recollected by all those who worked with him.

Then, in 1963, a government report by Lord Robbins recommended that the CATs should be universities. Of the two other CATs in London, Battersea decided to move out to become Surrey University while Chelsea joined London University. There were pressures on the Northampton to follow one or other of those examples but Tait was determined that there should be a second university in the heart of London, operating in close association with industry, commerce and the financial institutions of the City.

However, London University disliked the idea that any other university should have the word "London" in its title. Also, the new university was not actually within the City "square mile". How then to obtain the title "City University, London"? Easy. Tait persuaded the Privy Council that the word "London" could be used simply as an address. Then, in a brilliant stroke, he and the first Pro-Chancellor, Oliver Thompson, of Shell, conceived the idea that the Lord Mayor of London should be the Chancellor of the university. So, uniquely among UK universities, the Chancellor would change every year. This arrangement got the enthusiastic blessing of the City fathers and set the foundations for the vital links with the City which have served the university so well since then.

The first decade after becoming a university was marked by a broadening of the academic spectrum supported by a judicious combination of internal and external appointments to senior academic positions. To the young university's traditional strengths in engineering, ophthalmic optics and the new science of digital computing were added business studies and the applied social sciences. A notable coup was the appointment of Sir Robert Birley, the former headmaster of Eton, to the chair of humanities.

Tait began life in the mining village of Ochiltree in Ayrshire, where his father was an estate gardener. After leaving the village school at 14 to take up an apprenticeship with a Kilmarnock firm, Glenfield and Kennedy, and starting his engineering education by evening study, much the commonest method in those days, he won a scholarship to the Royal Technical College in Glasgow.

He gained an engineering diploma, with distinction in electrical subjects and success in every phase of the technical curriculum, was appointed a lecturer at the college, and stayed in Glasgow till 1946. Meanwhile, in 1939, he had married a Scots lass, Mary Linton; when he died, they were only a year short of their diamond wedding.

When Tait came south in 1946 it was as Head of the Electrical Engineering Department at Portsmouth Municipal College. A year later he went, in another promotion, to a similar but larger post in London, at the Northampton Polytechnic, whose students took London University degrees. Unlike books, engineers benefit from translation and Tait's success at the Northampton led in 1951 to his appointment as Principal at Woolwich Polytechnic.

When Tait became Principal of the Northampton CAT in 1957 there were about 800 full-time and sandwich students and 1,200 part-time day students. When he retired in 1974 the University Grants Committee had approved resources for some 2,500 undergraduates and 600 postgraduates involving about 300 staff. During his tenure a huge rebuilding programme had been undertaken and halls of residence brought into operation.

Tait was knighted in 1969 and received a number of academic honours. For 12 years until 1976 he was a member of the National Electronic Council and served on the boards of numerous academic bodies and institutions. He was a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

All his life Tait was proud of his Scottish origins and spent many holidays north of the border. Outdoor pursuits were his great love and at an early age he was active in the Scouting movement. Later, from his home near the Thames in Teddington, he gave many years of devoted service as an elder of the Presbyterian Church on Richmond Green.

Jack Levy and Edwin Harrison

James Sharp Tait, engineer and university administrator: born Ochiltree, Ayrshire 13 June 1912; Lecturer, Royal Technical College, Glasgow 1935- 46; Head of Electrical Engineering Department, Portsmouth Municipal College 1946-47; Head of Electrical Engineering Department, Northampton Polytechnic 1947-51, Principal (Northampton College of Advanced Technology, London) 1957-66, Vice-Chancellor and Principal (City University, London) 1966- 74; Principal, Woolwich Polytechnic 1951-56; Kt 1969; married 1939 Mary Linton (two sons, one daughter); died Teddington, Middlesex 18 February 1998.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering