Professor Frank Gould: Visionary vice-chancellor of the University of East London

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The Independent Online

Frank Gould was a far-sighted vice-chancellor who was able to construct in Docklands the first purpose-built campus of a new university in London. His monument, the buildings opposite London City airport, now stand as a physical testament to his view that, whatever their previous educational achievements or socio-economic background, the students of the University of East London deserve tuition and facilities which – at the least – match those of older and more prestigious universities.

Gould was a north Londoner and spent almost all of his career in the service of London higher education. A small child during the Blitz, he attended Glendale grammar school in Wood Green before conscription led him into the RAF and the opportunity to learn Russian and to work at GCHQ in Cheltenham. An undergraduate career at University College London led to a degree in philosophy and economics and to marriage to Lesley, an Australian fellow student. They went together to teach at the University of New South Wales before returning to London in 1966, where Gould enjoyed a brief career as a journalist.

Returning to teaching, he worked first at Kingston Polytechnic and then at Central London Polytechnic, where he headed a successful and rapidly expanding social sciences faculty, benefiting from the growth of student numbers in the 1970s and the interest in business studies. After a short period as assistant director of Leeds Polytechnic, he returned to London, to the then North East London Polytechnic, in 1988, as its deputy director.

Gould already enjoyed a high reputation as an academic administrator, but his skills were put to the test in his early years at what became in 1992 the University of East London. His predecessor, Gerry Fowler, became increasingly unwell and Frank deputised for him before becoming Director in 1991. The then polytechnic suffered from being divided between three main sites in what was then, and in parts still remains, one of the most deprived areas of Europe, with its student body drawn from a diverse but often educationally disadvantaged community. It was also a time of enormous change, as the old industries of the East End – particularly the docks – closed and were torn down to leave huge areas of dereliction, often imposed on bomb-sites which had not been used since the Second World War.

It took visionaries, in the early 1990s, to see the potential of East London; Frank Gould was one of them. While the focus of the London Docklands Development Corporation and other governmental bodies was on physical regeneration, Gould saw the crying need to equip the men and women of the East End with the skills that they would need to work in the new industries of the area, particularly in the financial services which now cluster around Canary Wharf. Even as the skyscrapers rose there, hundreds of acres of dereliction remained further east; Gould seized the opportunity to create a modern university and, in the process, to focus the work of UEL around two sites, in Docklands and Stratford.

But the physical regeneration of the university was only part of the task; Gould worked closely with the further education colleges of the area and with friendly competitors such as London Guildhall University and Queen Mary, University of London to raise aspirations among an increasingly diverse population, as major migrations intersected the older, white working-class communities.

Gould's vision for his area was later further vindicated by the selection of Stratford as the site for the 2012 Olympics, but it fell to his successors to develop UEL further to meet those challenges. Retiring in 2001, he continued to work – as he had done throughout his life – for those less fortunate than himself. He combined work as a trustee of the Toynbee Housing Association and of the Place2Be, which provides therapeutic intervention among primary schoolchildren, with guiding workforce development in the National Health Service in Newham.

Frank Gould could sometimes seem reserved, almost patrician in manner. He did not play a major role in national university politics, unsurprisingly given the task he had at UEL. His enthusiasms, outside his central focus on widening participation and improving standards in higher education, were for his wife and family, for horses, and for music, the last developed by his good fortune in having two professional musicians among his three children. UEL helped to cement its local communities, as a result, with concerts which attracted diverse audiences. His ambition to spend much of his retirement riding horses, a lifelong passion, was frustrated by the cancer which was to kill him, but he turned instead to carriage-driving.

Higher education in London owes much to Frank Gould. He, like other polytechnic directors, had to suffer some of the academic prejudice, and scepticism among part of the business community, towards the new universities. But he was steadfast in his devotion to his institution and always dignified and measured in his reactions. He and UEL went through some hard times and could have foundered, which would have done lasting harm to higher education in east London and the capital in general; it is very much to Gould's credit that this did not occur and that the university, close to the Olympic site, is now thriving.

Roderick Floud

Frank William Gould, economist and university administrator: born London 12 August 1937; Tutor in Economics, University of New South Wales 1964-66; economics journalist, Beaverbrook newspapers 1966-67; Lecturer in Economics, Kingston Polytechnic 1967-73; Principal Lecturer in Economics and Dean of Faculty, Polytechnic of Central London 1973-85; Assistant Director, Leeds Polytechnic 1985-88; Pro-Rector, North East London Polytechnic 1988-92; chairman, Open Learning Foundation Enterprises 1989-95; Vice-Chancellor, University of East London 1992-2001; married 1963 Lesley Hall (one son, two daughters); died London 3 June 2008.