KEITH MURRAY looked like a cricketer; big-framed, tall, stooping slightly. His gestures were large, his smile broad, his countenance cherubic. One could see that here was a man of immense energy, and the strength of his tenacity. What one did not at first appreciate was the penetration of his intellect, his ability to absorb and deploy information, and his capacity as a negotiator. In fact those who thought him without guile soon found they were wrong, for his power of manoeuvre was great, and he flattened the wickets of many a Whitehall batsman. It was not that he did not honestly declare his objectives. He simply had many ways of getting them.
These qualities made him ideal for the work to which he was called in 1953 as Chairman of the University Grants Committee at the remarkably early age of 50. He held it up for 10 years which brought higher education into the centre of policy for the first time in this century, and he was offered a further five - something that had never happened before and has not been repeated since. It was a post of peculiar difficulty which required basic trust both from the government he advised and the universities whose needs he had to reflect in the distribution from the lump sum put at his committee's disposal.
His earlier career also qualified him in a singular way for the work he had to do. His father was a Scottish judge, and his original university was Edinburgh, giving himm a feeling for Scottish higher education as part of the British system - something he always valued. Though he went later to Oxford as a postgraduate, and then as Bursar and Rector of Lincoln College (a dignity he reached at the age of 41) he gathered the experience of the older universities without incurring the suspicions other universities sometimes have of great men who have spent long careers in Oxford and Cambridge. Characteristically, while at Lincoln, he combined the offices of Rector and Bursar, something which must rarely have occurred in an Oxford College. Murray was not on the whole a delegator.
His subject - Agricultural Economics - also contributed to his suitability for his role, in the sense that though an academic, mathematically based, study it does not involve partisanship as between the great interests that often operate within universities on the subject of resources: science and the humanities; chemistry and physics; social science and the rest.
From the very first Murray was an expansionist so far as the universities were concerned. He wished to enlarge the opportunity for university education while preserving university autonomy, and was always clear about what that last phrase meant: control over the resources alloted to them; control over admissions, appointments and promotions; control over degree standards; control over discipline; and the unity of teaching and research, which he characterised as 'mutton and wool'. Without such guarantees, he considered, universities would not be jerked out of their comfortable ways into confronting the problems of the expansion he was determined to impose.
His achievements in this respect, long before Robbins came on the scene, were extraordinary, yet have often been overlooked. When he arrived at the UGC in 1953 he found no capital programme worth talking about. By his last year he had persuaded the Treasury to raise it from about pounds 2m a year to pounds 30m, with promises of yet higher figures. He had visited 42 sites for new universities and designated seven. He had devised UCCA, a national system for admissions that was the indispensable underpinning of expansion yet preserved the rights of each university to choose its own students. And he had encouraged the government to appoint in the early Sixties the Robbins Committee in whose work (though he himself was not a member) his influence rivalled that of Robbins himself. Almost every aspect of the report affecting universities is developed in the foundations Murray had laid.
After leaving the UGC he remained very much in university affairs, his principal effort being devoted to a committee which sought to solve the problems of London University in 1970-72. That, alas, was not conclusive. His advice was constantly sought at home and abroad. He became a life peer on leaving the UGC and was widely honoured. But when I went to see him at his quiet Westminster flat (he was now in his eighties) the man who could translate a pile of facts and figures into a cogent blue book of 200 pages within a week, was working on an embroidery. 'I rarely go out now,' he said.
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