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
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

News
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Frank Sivero in Goodfellas; Simpsons' wise guy Louie

The sound of Goodfellas mafioso Frankie Carbone demanding $250m in “damages” would be chilling enough on film, let alone in real life.

News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
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

Front end web developer - URGENT CONTRACT

£250 - £300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT** Our...

Year 3 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 Teachers - Chelm...

ABAP Developer

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ampersand Consulting LLP: SAP ABAP Developer - Rugb...

Head of Finance - Media

£80000 - £90000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for an International Mul...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?