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Peter Williams - Doctor of Laws - Formerly Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

Oration by Dr S J Gurman

Peter Williams has spent nearly all his working life in the administration and guidance of British higher education. Until his recent retirement he was the Chief Executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, more familiarly known as the QAA.

Peter Williams was born in Oxford and went to school there before going on to the University of Exeter, where he graduated with a BA in English in 1969. After a year as a management trainee with Hazell, Watson and Viney, a printing company, he joined the University of Surrey as an Administrative Assistant. In 1974 he moved to this university, first as a Senior Administrative Assistant, then as Assistant Registrar and finally as Secretary to the Medical School. Somewhat unusually for an administrator, he also served as Tutor and then Senior Tutor at Beaumont Hall, then, as now, one of the more civilized of the University’s residences. There is a story that whilst at Beaumont, he once rugby-tackled a miscreant from College Hall who was attempting to – ah – liberate some Beaumont Hall property. This shows a capacity for decisive action that has doubtless contributed to his success in University administration: the immediate outcome, however, was a dressing-down from our then Registrar, who clearly considered such behaviour unbecoming. His time at Leicester also gave Peter Williams an abiding taste for Hoskins’ and Ruddle’s beers.

Peter Williams left Leicester in 1984, when he was appointed Deputy Secretary of the British Academy. The British Academy, which received its Royal Charter in 1902, is the national body for the humanities and social sciences in the UK. Its purpose is to inspire, recognize and fund excellence in these areas. The Deputy Secretary is one of its senior administrators. As such, Peter Williams was responsible for major changes and improvements to the scheme for postgraduate studentship awards in the humanities. In addition, he was Secretary to the gloriously named Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Committee, a project to publish details of (as my scholarly audience will have realized already) all the medieval stained glass in the UK.

In 1990 Peter Williams left the beauties of medieval stained glass for those of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, for whom he served as Director of several audit and quality units until 1997. He joined the QAA in 1997, was Acting Chief Executive in 2001, at a moment of high drama in the Agency’s existence, and finally Chief Executive from 2002 until his retirement in 2009. As Chief Executive he was responsible for a new approach by the QAA which allowed the universities to evolve quality assurance systems within broad guidelines. He was honoured with the CBE in that year for his work in higher education.

The QAA, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, is an agency, owned by the higher education community, whose function is to safeguard quality and standards in higher education. Since universities in the UK are independent and self-governing, the role of the QAA is strictly advisory although, it must be said, its influence is far-reaching. It publishes guidelines for good practice and regularly reviews institutions, making judgments and recommendations for improvement when appropriate. Peter Williams joined it on its establishment in 1997. He had already pioneered the concept of the academic audit whilst with the CVCP and the QAA’s predecessor, the Higher Education Quality Council. In the 1990s this was a dangerous world to inhabit: quality assurance was a new, mistrusted and even hated intrusion into academic life. By the time he became Chief Executive, Peter Williams had already incurred the wrath of half of the Russell Group of universities and even now I suspect that some of those on this platform might consider a coat of tar and feathers, rather than a doctoral gown, to be the appropriate garb for him. In fact, the so-called “Quality Wars” subsided during Peter Williams’ term of office, largely thanks to his efforts to revise and simplify the methods of assessment and also as he stoutly defended the universities from some of the more extreme ideas put forward by government ministers.

Peter Williams has thought long and hard about the purpose and practice of quality assurance in higher education. His conclusions (so far, at least) are set out in a paper, “The Result of Intelligent Effort?”, published last year by the Institute of Education of the University of London. The title comes from what he believes to be a quotation (although neither he nor I have been able to track it to its source): “Quality is not an accident, it is always the result of intelligent effort”. Peter Williams has put much intelligent effort into quality assurance. His principal maxim is the traditional, but no less valuable for that, saying “Keep it Simple”. This maxim led to his devising a series of questions that were both simple and demanding. These still form the basis of the work of the QAA and have been widely adopted by quality assurance agencies throughout the world. The four core questions are: What are you trying to do?, Why are you trying to do it?, How do you know it works?, and How are you going to improve it?. Simple questions indeed, but providing honest answers to them requires much intelligent effort, effort which can lead to a re-appraisal of methods and an improvement in quality.

Peter Williams has devoted his working life to higher education and in retirement continues to think about, and write on, its improvement. Today we honour him for it: with a doctoral gown!

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and of the Council, I present Peter Williams that you may confer on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws.

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