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Obituaries: Sir Thomas Alexander Fraser Noble

Thomas Alexander Fraser Noble - Fraser to all his friends - was one of the outstanding academic administrators of the twentieth century. 

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester between 1962 and 1976 and Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen from 1976 to 1981, he was also called on to serve on a large number of Governmental and non-Governmental organisations as well being elected Chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. 

     [Photo: Sir Fraser Noble]

At Leicester he presided over a university which was expanding at a time when the Government was providing a reasonable financial basis set against what was to come; much of his time at Aberdeen was characterised by severe cuts in funding imposed by a Government unwilling to maintain a long-term commitment to academic and financial stability for universities. In both sets of circumstances he made an indelible mark on both institutions and left behind him a wide circle of devoted friends and admirers.

Fraser Noble was brought up in North-East Scotland. His father, a local school teacher, died when Fraser was eight and he and his brother were raised by his mother. He was educated at Nairn Academy, went to Aberdeen University when he was sixteen, and graduated with first class honours in Classics in 1938 and Economics in 1940. He volunteered for the Army in 1939, was posted to the Black Watch, but was then transferred to the Indian Civil Service where he served with distinction in the North West Province until the end of British rule. He was faced with great responsibilities and in 1947 was awarded the MBE. In later years he recounted a remark made by Lord Bullock; 'What an odd lark this is. How can anyone prepare to be a Vice-Chancellor in these days - unless he had been a political officer on the North West Frontier.' Fraser was probably the only one so qualified.

He returned to Scotland, completed a course of teacher-training but then accepted an appointment as Lecturer in Political Economy at Aberdeen University. After ten years in that role he was appointed Secretary and Treasurer of the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, a post which gave him considerable insight into the lives and problems of university students and staff alike as well as an understanding of the ways in which universities operated. It was this experience (taking him to universities all over Britain and North America) which led directly in 1962 to the Vice-Chancellorship of the University of Leicester.

It was an appointment which suited him perfectly. Under the guidance of Sir Charles Wilson the University had graduated from being a University College in special relationship with the University of London into being an award-giving institution in its own right. It was still small, with an enrolment of some 1500 students and with a limited range of faculties. Fraser Noble presided over physical and academic developments which transformed the nature of the University. On the academic side a notable new feature was the creation of major Schools of Biological Sciences, Law, Medicine and Social Work, as well as a number of new and distinctive areas of study such as Victorian Studies, Mass Communication Research, and Museum Studies. The introduction and rapid growth of these disciplines transformed the forward trajectory of the University. They represent an important feature of Fraser’s legacy to the University. By the time he left full-time student numbers had risen to some 4000 and the University’s Faculties had established strong research reputations.

It was not however a carefree time, and he was one of the first Vice-Chancellors to be faced with a feature of the late 1960s, actively expressed student discontent. There were demands by students for a more active participation in the University and its government which led in February 1968 to a student 'occupation' of the main administrative buildings and to direct confrontation between the students and the University authorities. Opinions in the University were divided over the issues but virtually all the teaching staff supported Fraser Noble whose judicious, calm, and conciliatory approach brought the dispute to a peaceful end. It was the pattern established at Leicester which in effect formed the precedent for similar understandings in other universities.

The high reputation which Fraser Noble had gained at Leicester was echoed by his fellow Vice-Chancellors when he was elected as Chairman of the CVCP for the period 1970 to 1972. This brought him an even greater range of duties both in Britain and on the wider world stage, and contributed to his earning a knighthood in 1971. He was by now deeply immersed in creating links with Universities and Higher Education all over the world and was anxious always to foster the numbers of overseas students studying at various levels in the universities of the United Kingdom.

But in 1976 his old University invited him to accept its Principalship, and it was an offer he felt he could not refuse. His immediate predecessor at Leicester, Charles Wilson, had also gone back to his mother University, and Sir Fraser could not resist following the precedent. If it was not altogether to be a happy time, the fault did not lie with the University or with the staff and students there, but was a consequence of changes in Governmental policy towards the Universities in general. A perceived need to make cuts in Government expenditure was linked with the abandonment of the principle of making future plans on a five-year commitment. Thus at Aberdeen Sir Fraser was forced to begin plans for severe retrenchment in an institution which had never been forced to face such stringency. It was not easy, and inevitably some of the odium fell upon him. At the same time he inspired the same love and respect that he had enjoyed at Leicester, and it is a fair comment that both institutions honoured him after his retirement by naming a substantial building in his name.

He retired in 1981 and went back to live in Nairn. Here he could relax, keeping in touch with his old friends. His wife Barbara had been a childhood sweetheart; they married in 1945 while he was still in the Indian Civil Service, and they had a partnership of over seventy-seven years. They played golf and he wrote his memoirs of life in India. 

The outstanding characteristic of Sir Fraser Noble was his skills with people. He was friendly, approachable, ready to listen, but prepared to be firm and decisive when that was necessary. He received honours - four honorary degrees, an MBE, a knighthood, a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh - but he remained always accessible to all who sought his advice and always interested in the affairs of others and in their own interests.

Professor Aubrey Newman
September 2003

Fraser Noble inspired me (and I really do mean inspired) into a career in university administration. The University of Leicester was my first employee and Fraser and I worked on many exciting projects together. Together we managed, with me acting as an unofficial go-between, to sort out the first 'sit in' at university in 1968. We also wrote together the first Leicester University prospectus (previously there had only been a book of regulations, known as a handbook) which resulted in a 16% increase in applications in the year of its publication. We also dreamt up the idea of the first University open day and, following the publication of the Scott Report, we worked together to put in the foundations of the proposed new medical school. Fraser also asked me to run a committee to help manage the complexities of the University’s space research programme and the rest, as they say, is history.

But above all, despite innovations and systems, Fraser showed fantastic example that any CEO should - although many don’t - that it is the people who are the most important in organisation. After all, what’s good about systems and ideas if the people are not led and cared for as they try to implement them. Literally every morning when he came into the office we would stop and have a conversation with the two then so called porters behind the desk. He never swept by and straight into his own room. I will miss him. He was an absolute magnificent Chairman of the CVCP, chaired a national committee looking into the effects of violence on TV on viewers which resulted in the formation of the outstanding Centre for Mass Communication Research and he also chaired a national overarching body managing the probation service. My next door neighbour was a probation officer at the time and since was a lecturer in probation matters at Manchester Metropolitan University. He remembers Fraser as thoughtful, decisive, quick witted and also a sympathetic human being. I think that we would all say, “aye to that”.

Tony Higgins
September 2003

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Last updated: 25 September 2003 16:32
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