Remembering Berrick

Berrick Saul: Vice-Chancellor 1 January 1979 – 30 September 1993

Professor Berrick Saul who died in May 2016 aged 91 was the University’s Vice-Chancellor from January 1979 to October 2003. David Foster remembers him.

“One of the best jobs in higher education” and “an environment in which it was a joy to live and work” are just two of his comments on the pleasure he took in his job as Vice-Chancellor at the University of York. They were typical of a man who was utterly straightforward, completely lacking in pomposity and who led the University with a light touch.

The University was lucky to get him. An eminent economic historian with an international reputation, he held the Chair of Economic History at Edinburgh and at different times had been visiting professor at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley. Recognising his special talents, Edinburgh had made him a Faculty Dean, Vice-Principal and, on the death of the then Principal Sir Hugh Robson, Acting Principal, the post he occupied at the time York was searching for a new vice-chancellor.

It was a bleak time for higher education: money was tight, with the Government constantly urging more efficiency gains and exercising tight control on student numbers. For York, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that the University, relative to other institutions, was seriously underfunded, a situation which the Funding Council eventually recognised after much pressure from Berrick and senior colleagues. From the outset, he insisted on rigorous financial control, painful though this was for all areas of the University. Posts were left unfilled, in some cases for several years, departmental grants were frozen and funds for capital development, let alone major maintenance, were in short supply. It was little comfort when some years later, the Funding Council told him that York was an institution which never gave them any cause for concern because it was so well managed.

By the summer of 1992 however, he was able to report to the University Court that York was one of the few universities with more academic staff in 1990 than in 1980, that student numbers had grown by a third over the same period and that York was amongst that small group of institutions whose income for research and for teaching were roughly the same. York was also riding high on its success in the research selectivity exercises which were introduced in the 1980s: in the 1992/3 exercise for example, York was ranked eleventh out of 96 universities – not bad for an institution which was less than thirty years old. This success was achieved not just by rigorous financial control but also by exploiting every opportunity to secure new funding, by insisting on the highest academic standards and by not pursuing growth in student numbers simply for the sake of it. This period saw the rapid expansion of the Department of Computer Science (following the division of the former Computation into the new academic department and the Computing Service), the creation of a new department which is now the Environment Department, the establishment of the Centres for Health Economics and the Centre for Housing Policy, the new Institute for Social and Economic Research, new chairs with substantial funding for other posts in cancer research, a chair in medieval stained glass and the foundation of the Science Park. The Norwegian Study Centre was also welcomed to establish its UK base on the university campus, and is still here. He even found time to secure outside sponsorship for a series of major orchestral concerts which ran for a number of years in the Central Hall. Berrick was generous in always acknowledging the enormous efforts of the academic and research staff in these enterprises but it was he who gave the lead and the encouragement.

He led the University with a light touch although he always knew exactly what was going on. Long papers weren’t his style, never using two sentences when one would do. Clarity of vision, a willingness to take tough decisions however unpopular they might be and a determination to fight the University’s corner were hallmarks of his vice-chancellorship. He was also enormously proud of the University and its staff and students, and never failed to challenge any implied criticism of it. He once crossed swords with a senior government minister who had the temerity to describe York as a snooty university: “I demurred,” said Berrick, “and asked him what he meant.” “A university setting high standards” was the man’s reply and with that, Berrick declared himself wholly content. On another occasion, a member of the Funding Council described York as a well run university but with a relatively low profile: “I took that to be high praise (as) we have not had to parade ourselves in public in the manner of some other institutions – we are after all a seat of learning.”

Berrick hailed from the West Midlands, educated at West Bromwich Grammar School and the University of Birmingham. He remained a lifelong follower of the fortunes of West Bromwich Albion football club, an enthusiasm which he readily admitted necessitated a broad outlook on life. His published output was substantial: his most celebrated (two volume) work, written in collaboration with Professor Alan Milward, was an Economic History of Continental Europe. In 1977, he gave the Ellen Macarthur lectures at Cambridge, on Roosevelt and the New Deal. He loved teaching and for several years after his arrival in York taught a course (in his office in Heslington Hall) for the Economics Department on Roosevelt and the New Deal (Roosevelt was one of his heroes – another was Joseph Chamberlain). My former colleague David Waddington recalled that during his time as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, the only occasion he was kept waiting for a meeting with Berrick was when the latter was slightly late finishing a class.

He was a most accessible vice-chancellor and, to the University’s great benefit, not given to long absences from the university. At the same time, other organisations benefitted from his help. He was Chairman of UCCA (continuing long after his retirement), oversaw its merger with PCAS and became Executive Chairman of the successor body Ucas: he was also chairman of CCETSW (the Central Council for Training and Education in Social Work), Vice-Chairman of the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission and a member of the governing body of the European University Institute in Florence. On one occasion, we did persuade him to accept an invitation to visit several colleges and universities in Japan with which York had established cordial relations: he and his wife were overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome they received. He was appointed CBE in 1991.

He loved a bit of ceremonial, none more so than the annual degree ceremonies. Perhaps his greatest pleasure was the installation of Dame Janet Baker as the University’s Chancellor, an occasion which also included some outstanding honorary graduates and a performance by the University Chamber Orchestra of a complete Mozart symphony. His love of music was further indulged when the University gave honorary degrees to Cleo Lane and John Dankworth.

Music, and opera in particular, was a lifelong passion. Until his ninetieth year, he was a regular at Covent Garden (nowhere else in the UK would do) and it was not unknown for him to travel to opera houses in Europe if there was a particular singer or opera which he anxious not to miss. He often listened to music with the score in front of him – and not infrequently could be seen to be helping the conductor. Maria Callas was the performer of whom he would brook no criticism. Another passion was Shakespeare which involved frequent visits to Stratford. He had seen performances of the entire canon and by the time of his death was well into his third or fourth viewing of some of his favourites. Book collecting was another pleasure, pursuing missing volumes in the days before the advent of those businesses which took the joy out of the hunt. In more recent years, he much enjoyed being reconnected with the University through membership of the Court and, even after their move to Nottinghamshire, rarely missed a meeting.

The Annual Report for 1993–94 carried this appreciation: “(Berrick) led the University with success and distinction for 15 years, and our present position (as one of the country’s leading teaching and research institutions) reflects his efforts.” Those of us who worked alongside him would only want to add that in everything he did and achieved at York, his wife Sheila was the most stalwart support.