Obituary: Sir James Tait
Friday 27 February 1998
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.
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