Don Swift was born in a village near Liverpool, the son (and grandson) of a blacksmith, was educated at St Mary's College, Crosby, and spent National Service in the RAF Police, for a time in Berlin. He trained as a teacher at the Cheshire County Training College, Alsager, where he met his future wife, Enid. After a period in secondary schools, he returned to higher education and at Hull University read Sociology. Following PhD work at Liverpool, he took up a teaching position in Canada, at the University of Calgary, and later returned to Liverpool, to a post in adult education.
His doctoral research, a study of family background factors on the educational performance of schoolboys in Liverpool, was influential in the burgeoning field of sociology of education in Britain in the 1960s. With sociologists at Liverpool University and a nearby college of education, Edge Hill, in 1965 he initiated the international journal Sociology of Education Abstracts, now in its 32nd year. In 1966, he was appointed to Oxford University's Department of Educational Studies, where his advanced course in the sociology of education attracted present and future lecturers in the field.
But it was at the Open University, where he became a Foundation Professor of Educational Studies in 1970, that his concern for educational opportunity found more practical expression. He convened the sociology of education group which contributed to the first large-scale BA degree for non-graduate teachers, offered by means of a purpose-designed, structured "distance education" programme. The group utilised an unconventional range of perspectives, and its innovative textbooks were used world-wide on both distance education and conventional courses in higher education. As a Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Open University from 1976 to 1981, he contributed to the establishment of what was then a unique institution in its early years and attracting international interest.
During the 1980s he became acquainted with the Asian- Pacific region, for several years directing distance education programmes in Hong Kong for the University of East Asia, Macau, and lobbying for the establishment of such provision in Hong Kong itself. In 1988, the Open Learning Institute of Hong Kong was established, with Swift as its first director, and he continued as a persistent advocate for this new avenue of opportunity in a territory which, until then, had very restricted access to degree-level study. The Open Learning Institute (shortly to become the Open University of Hong Kong) now has over 20,000 students.
In 1992 he undertook what was to prove his final assignment, as a consultant to the South African Institute for Distance Education. The huge educational problems of the new South Africa offered a fresh challenge upon which, by temperament, belief and experience, Swift was ideally suited to comment and advise.
Don Swift was a comparatively private and unflamboyant man. His "religion" was cricket, in which he was an active team player each season, and his general physical fitness makes his sudden and premature death the more unexpected.
Donald Francis Swift, educationist: born Ince Blundell, Lancashire 27 September 1932; Professor of Educational Studies, Open University 1970- 86, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1976-81; Director, Open Learning Institute, Hong Kong 1988-91; consultant, South African Institute for Distance Education 1992-97; married 1957 Enid Wilkinson (one son, two daughters); died Johannesburg 20 January 1997.