Professor Roy Niblett

First holder of a university chair in higher education in the UK
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William Roy Niblett, educationist: born Keynsham, Somerset 25 July 1906; Senior English Master, Doncaster Grammar School 1930-34; Lecturer in Education, King's College, Newcastle 1934-45; Registrar, Durham University 1940-44; Professor of Education, University College Hull 1945-47; Professor of Education and Director, Institute of Education, Leeds Univesrity 1947-59; Dean, Institute of Education, London University 1960-68, Professor of Higher Education 1967-73 (Emeritus); CBE 1970; married 1938 Sheila Taylor (died 1997; one son, one daughter); died Stonehouse, Gloucestershire 6 May 2005.

Roy Niblett, Emeritus Professor of Education of London University, was an active contributor throughout his life to the causes which he held dear. Looking back in his mid-nineties, he inclined to the view that, professionally speaking, the first half had been more rewarding than the second. The judgment implied no lessening of his searching interest in contemporary circumstances, but rather his clear-sighted assessment that much of what he had contended for had come increasingly under pressure as the 20th century proceeded.

He was born in Keynsham, near Bristol, into a modest family background. In 1914, his parents moved into the city in the hope, duly fulfilled, that when the time came Roy would pass the scholarship examination for entry to the Merchant Venturers' School. He showed his mettle at an early age, when he persuaded the school to introduce an arts sixth form. With his father taking the view that Oxford University was beyond the reach of a family such as theirs, Roy Niblett read English at Bristol University, financially supported by a grant awarded on the understanding that he would acquire a postgraduate teaching qualification and serve as a teacher; this he did, but not before making it to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, for two years of research for the award of a BLitt degree.

Niblett viewed himself first and foremost as a teacher, whether in person or in his writing. He had benefited from teachers who took care to encourage their pupils, students and colleagues, and believed that "to show confidence in others, matters in untold measure". His teaching style was supportive, searching, meticulous in detail, above all engaged in ensuring the best possible outcome to the task in hand.

In 1934 he moved into higher education, as a lecturer in Education at King's College, Newcastle, and within a short time his potential abilities as a policy maker and administrator had gained recognition. In the constraining circumstances of the Second World War, he found himself serving for four years as Registrar of the University of Durham. He was appointed to his first professorship in 1945 by Hull University, and his move in 1948 to Leeds, as Professor of Education and Director of the Institute of Education, gave him the opportunity to influence teacher education at an important stage.

The implementation of the 1944 McNair Report had established university oversight of the teacher training colleges to meet the challenges of the post-war world, and at Leeds Niblett was in the forefront of developments in both initial and in-service teacher education. It was the happiest time of his professional life. For 10 years, he was a member of the University Grants Committee, and he never ceased to regret losing the battle in that forum, by one vote, on the continuation of ear-marked funding for Institutes of Education.

Roy Niblett's appointment as Dean of the University of London Institute of Education in 1960 increased his national and international profile. He enjoyed visiting professorships in the United States, Australia and Japan, and he served as a Vice-President of the World University Service. In 1968 when he was appointed to a chair in higher education at the Institute, the first such professorial designation in the United Kingdom, it was a fitting recognition of his role on the wider university stage.

His professorial appointment also fitted well with Niblett's insistence that universities and colleges should not cease to address the question "What is higher education for?", as it became pre-occupied, in his view, by its response to a government-led policy, in which economic considerations increasingly predominated, at the expense of regard for imagination, creativity and personal development. He remained trenchant on the obligation upon higher education to offer challenge and constructive criticism to society, and not to confine itself to an agenda set by others.

For these reasons Niblett played a key role in the establishment of the Higher Education Foundation; he lent his weight to the formation of the Society for Research into Higher Education in the 1960s, served as its chair for three years and was awarded a Vice Presidency in 1992. To the end of his life, he was an active advocate of his philosophy of education. His final publication, Life, Education, Discovery, appeared in 2001, and a conference which he had promoted on "Higher Education and Human Good" took place in the last weeks of his life.

When he left London for Gloucestershire in the 1970s, retirement was far from his mind, and he remained actively involved in many educational enterprises and much in demand as a member of boards and governing bodies. Invited to serve on the Governing Body of Bristol Polytechnic, he did so gladly, but only for three years, finding its subservience to the Bristol Education Committee "rather alarming", and a clear argument for the withdrawal of the polytechnics from local authority control.

Roy Niblett's deeply held religious beliefs, grounded in non-conformity, were a central element in his life from childhood. They were shaped intellectually in the inter-war era of liberal biblical and theological scholarship, among those with a common concern for the application of Christian faith and ethics to society. His contacts were wide-ranging, academically and ecclesiastically, and his conviction that religion is an inescapable dimension of human fullness was lifelong. He was concerned at the rise of fundamentalist approaches, and in his nineties he played the major role in initiating the Severn Theological Forum, which has built up a distinguished reputation.

He had married Sheila Taylor in 1938, with whom he shared over 50 years of happiness until her death in 1997. His family was always at the heart of his life, which was also enriched by an abundance of friendships to which he himself contributed in full measure until days before his death.

In his later writing, Niblett reflected dispassionately and perceptively on the times through which he had lived, and with typical generosity of spirit, he often drew attention to his own good fortune.

Jennifer Bone