Sir Fraser Noble

Vice-Chancellor of Leicester and then Aberdeen
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Thomas Alexander Fraser Noble, colonial and university administrator: born Cromdale, Morayshire 29 April 1918; MBE 1947; Lecturer in Political Economy, Aberdeen University 1948-57, Principal and Vice-Chancellor 1976-81 (Emeritus); Secretary and Treasurer, Carnegie Trust for Universities of Scotland 1957-62; Vice-Chancellor, Leicester University 1962-76; Kt 1971; married 1945 Barbara Sinclair (one son, one daughter); died Nairn 21 August 2003.

Fraser Noble was only 43 when Leicester University invited him, in 1962, to become its second Vice-Chancellor. This was a bold and imaginative decision and most unusual for the period. Universities appointed as their leaders already venerable professors, who had served their turns as Deans and Pro-Vice-Chancellors and "knew the ropes" and 43 was most certainly 15 or so years on the young side for the job.

But Noble was by then at the height of his intellectual and administrative powers and his years at Leicester were to be the heart of his career and the period that set the university for its current eminence.

That career fell into four sections. Noble was an overseas administrator for seven years (1940-47), a lecturer for 10 (1948-57), a trust administrator for five (1957-62) and a Vice-Chancellor, first of Leicester and then of his Alma Mater, Aberdeen, for 19 (1962-81). To his family's joy, his retirement of 22 years exceeded each of these in duration.

Entering Aberdeen University as an undergraduate at the age of 16, he was still legally a minor when he graduated with first class honours in Classics in 1938, continuing to complete a similarly distinguished degree in Economics in 1940. The Second World War had broken out and he joined the Black Watch. However, his military career was brief (he liked to put it that he "reached the dizzy heights of the rank of acting/ unpaid lance corporal"), and he was called to join the Indian Civil Service.

From 1941 until Indian independence in 1947, he served in the North-West Frontier Province, successively as Assistant Commissioner in Hazara, Assistant Political Agent in North Waziristan and Under-Secretary in the Civil Supplies and Development Departments - ending his service as Deputy Commissioner in Peshawar.

Sir George Cunningham, Governor of the North-West Frontier Province, saw the potential and capacity of his young colleague and the two became fast friends. They say that the post of Secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews was vacant at the time and Noble thought of applying for it. But Cunningham told him not to be ridiculous and, the following year, he returned to Aberdeen University as Lecturer in Political Economy (as Economics was then described).

In 1945, he had married his childhood sweetheart, Barbara Sinclair, whom he had met in Nairn in 1926. She had also attended Aberdeen, graduating in 1937 and returning to Nairn Academy as a maths teacher.

The administrator in Fraser Noble now resumed control and, in 1957, he accepted the post of Secretary and Treasurer of the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland. For some of his friends, this was a surprise change of direction. However, the trust was still then hugely influential in Scottish education, having for more than half a century funded study at the four Scottish universities for many hundreds (if not thousands) of bright Scottish youngsters, who - in days long before student grants - would not otherwise have been able to take advantage of their abilities.

Leicester had only recently gained its independence and become a full university when, five years later, he was appointed Vice-Chancellor. Its first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Charles Wilson, had decided to accept the "call" to return to Glasgow as Principal. They didn't know it in Leicester, but - 14 years later - history was going to repeat itself.

In 1962 Leicester University had 1,500 students and two faculties (Arts and Science). In Noble's time there, this grew to 6,000 students and five faculties. The Sixties and Seventies were the decades of rapid expansion in UK higher education, inspired by the Robbins Report and the adoption of the principle that higher education should be available to all those intellectually capable of taking advantage of it. New universities were established, and existing universities tripled or quadrupled their sizes. But not all did so gracefully or uniformly successfully.

Today, Leicester is a distinguished academic leader in many fields - including Medicine and Law, faculties established in Noble's time - in no small part because it had at the helm one of the most talented and charismatic academic leaders of the time. Noble's skills toolkit included ease in working with people from all walks of life - inside and outside academe - and these talents, for example, ensured that Leicester was selected as one of the universities to be granted a new medical school, as recommended by the Royal Commission on Medical Education in its report in 1968.

He had a great way with people - being friendly, approachable, ready to listen to student and staff alike; firm when he had to be, but always flexible. He never forgot a name or a face. He was capable of incisive analysis and great wisdom, but - more than that - his pronouncements carried weight. He had a keen eye for finding the right person for a key appointment, such as the choice of Robert (now Lord) Kilpatrick in the medical school, and he lay the foundations for new developments of all kinds, creating schools in new academic areas, such as social work and museum studies. He was the inspiration behind fine new buildings and showed the financial and business skills that are now recognised as vital for the V-C to have if his/her institution is to flourish.

His peers recognised his qualities. He served as chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, 1970-72, and was knighted in 1971. This role brought him into closer contact with politicians, an experience that he did not always enjoy. His son, Simon, recalls his father, after a meeting with Margaret Thatcher when she was Education Secretary, shaking his head in exasperation at the mention of her name, with a sotto voce "Oh, dreadful woman".

It was no surprise to those who knew him when, in 1976, the Queen graciously informed Aberdeen that she had appointed Sir Fraser Noble to be its new Principal and Vice-Chancellor (one of the last Regius appointments to universities with that privilege). The university found the same qualities of approachability, wisdom and kindliness that had been seen in Leicester. Noble was able more readily to indulge his passion for golf, sharing the tee with friends - as likely to be the swimming-pool attendant as the Professor of Jurisprudence.

But the decades of expansion and generous funding for the universities were drawing to a close, and the Thatcher cuts hit Aberdeen hard - more savagely than most, as the university had responded to the call for expansion, and engaged staff and put up generously proportioned buildings for student numbers far beyond the new targets in the period of cutbacks. The worst news about the effects of the future funding formula on Aberdeen was announced in Noble's last weeks as Vice-Chancellor. He strove manfully to prepare the required cuts for retrenchment, to try to draw the inevitable fire he knew would follow the announcement of the details. Sadly, in this - his last act of self-sacrifice - he largely failed, and Aberdeen faced dark days of dissent in the years following his retirement.

Fraser Noble loved Aberdeen - the city, its people, the university, its staff and its students. However, there was one place he loved more - Nairn, where he and Barbara spent the last 22 years. He was born, in fact, in the village of Cromdale, in 1918, the son of the local "dominie", but his father died when he was eight, and his mother and brother, Donald, retreated to Nairn, impoverished and uncertain. His experience then, the support his family found in the town, and that he and Donald found in Nairn Academy, inspired in him a deep-seated commitment to equality and fairness. His life was marked by generosity of spirit - a life in which much was given.

He developed an early love of golf, having been gifted the seven shillings and sixpence, then the annual boy's subscription to the Nairn Golf Club, and excelled at this sport. He was an assiduous reader, with a formidable memory. He was determined and sometimes downright stubborn - the privilege of those who know they are right.

Despite suffering a stroke, and further illness later, Fraser Noble found time to write, publishing a memoir of his time on the North-West Frontier - Something in India - in 1997.

Roddy Begg