GERALD FOWLER was both a politician with the rare gift of being sincere and honest in his dealings, and an academic with the ability to simplify even the most arduous of problems for his students. He represented The Wrekin as a district councillor and as a Labour MP for a total of more than 13 years, and was a Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science no fewer than three times.
It was not until 1960 that Gerry Fowler started taking a lively interest in politics. Until then he had been tied almost exclusively to his books, from the time he had been awarded a scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford, from Northampton Grammar School, through to Firsts in Mods and Greats and postgraduate research work at the University of Frankfurt-am-Main where his German became just short of fluent.
He returned from Germany in 1958 to take up a part-time lectureship in Classics at Pembroke College and a year later became a full-time lecturer in his favourite subject, ancient history, at Hertford and Lincoln Colleges. Then in 1960 he stood for Oxford Council - and won. He was elected MP for The Wrekin, not a Conservative stronghold but a Shropshire marginal, in 1966, and Harold Wilson appointed him joint Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Technology under Tony Benn, the year after he entered Parliament.
Fowler had his head in the whirlwind world of politics but his heart in education. He was most proud of the time he 'stole' (his word) a million pounds from the University Grants Committee and re-routed it to the Adult Literacy Scheme. 'We need a country whose people can read and write. Academics are able to look after themselves,' he declared.
It was while he was Minister for Higher Education, serving under the former secondary modern headteacher Ted Short (now Lord Glenamara) that the first of the modern polytechnics was designated in 1969-70. Fowler's signature appears in the documents that gave birth to the 'polys'. It was during one of his three 'stints' at the DES that he dreamed of creating an Open Polytechnic, similar in function to the Open University. Some years later it came about and is now the highly successful Open Learning Foundation.
Fowler's other dream was to transform Britain's polytechnics into universities. This dream, too, was realised. Throughout the four years (1986-90) he served as vice-chairman and chairman of the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics, the policymaking body for the 39 polytechnics, he worked at paving the path that brought them to university status last year.
During his chairmanship that the Berlin Wall was demolished. To commemorate the event, he launched the Polytechnics' Eastern and Central European Scholarship Scheme (Pecess, now aptly renamed Success) which awarded postgraduate bursaries to East German students. The scheme won the blessing of Margaret Thatcher, who persuaded the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to give it support. The scheme lives on and still receives FCO sponsorship, with scholarships going to Czechoslovaks, Poles, Romanians and Ukrainians.