News Room

Vale Professor Robert H (Bob) Fryer, CBE 1944-2020

It is with great sadness that I heard that Bob Fryer died on 6 December 2020.

Bob was a BUIRA member and spoke well at several BUIRA conferences.

As his family announced in the Guardian: "It is with fondness and pride that we remember him as a loving husband, father and grandfather. He dedicated his working life to education and lifelong learning, having a major and lasting inspirational influence on many. Extremely knowledgeable and perceptive with a penetrating intellect, sharp wit and good humour, he was caring, compassionate and a lifelong socialist who firmly believed in equal opportunities for all."

Attendance at his funeral service was limited during the pandemic, so was mostly his family. However, a few friends were also involved including Lord Tom Sawyer of the Labour Party, formerly of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE).

Bob graduated from Cambridge University in 1966; in the following year Oxford University awarded him a distinction in its graduate diploma in administration and social studies, when he was much influenced by the late Alan Fox. From 1967 he was a research assistant at Imperial College, London and from 1968 he was a research officer attached to Oxford University, but based in Lancaster. He also taught at Plater College, Oxford, which was the start of his lifelong pleasure of teaching, particularly with people whose previous experience of education had been limited.

In 1969 he moved to Manchester University where he worked with George Bain. In 1971, Bob followed George (long before George was knighted) to Warwick University. Initially, Bob was in the Industrial Relations Research Unit, but in 1973, he moved to the Sociology Department, where his teaching included industrial relations. In 1983 he became the second Principal of the Northern College for Residential Adult Education for 15 years. In 1998 he became Assistant Vice Chancellor at Southampton University where he was responsible for its New College. He was subsequently the founding Vice Chancellor of the National Health Service (NHS) University, which began in 2003. But the government closed it in 2005 and moved its programmes to the Skills for Health organisation. Then Bob moved into the Department of Health as National Director for Widening Participation. The Report that he wrote there was praised in Parliament in 2007 by the then Minister of Health (Andy Burnham).

Lord Blunkett recently wrote “what a phenomenal contribution Bob made to the lives of so many people.  He was a force of nature and had been transformative in so many roles, not least of course in the whole field of adult learning and his commitment to lifelong opportunity.”  

Bob was an inspirational teacher and a brilliant public speaker. His many other roles included membership of the Labour Government's National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning.  He served on the advisory boards of Investors in People UK, National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education, Campaign for Learning UK, as well as Chair of the Learning and Skills Council’s Distributed and Electronic Learning Group. He had a far-reaching impact internationally, as well as in the UK. His contribution to adult and continuing education was recognised in 1999 by the award of a CBE.

Fields of research in which Bob made lasting contributions include redundancy (with Roderick Martin and the late Dorothy Wedderburn) and unions (with Richard Hyman, Steve Williams and others). His most significant research was with NUPE, which was influential in changing the structure and strategies of the union, as well as helping to change the lives its members who were low-paid workers. His research also analysed the emerging dialectic between the union's appointed full-time officials and lay activists, which he termed “sponsored democracy”.[1] Bob had a lasting affection for NUPE; he advised it in the merger discussions with two other unions that led to the creation in 1993 of UNISON, which became the largest UK union.

As Steve Williams wrote in an obit., put it “Bob spent most of his early years in Oxford, where his family were very much 'town' rather than 'gown'.”  His mother, father and brother all worked in different capacities in the motor industry.

Bob had been unwell for a few years and his health deteriorated during 2020. His family were all with him when he died (his last smile was when heard the result of the England v. France rugby match). A few days before he last went into hospital in his beloved NHS, he asked Ann, his darling wife since 1967, to let friends know why he had not been in touch. He was finding it difficult to hit the right key on his phone and was losing his speech.

Ann received many messages with words that were oft repeated including “supportive and generous leader; a powerful commitment to fairness; a true intellect; funny, generous and intelligent…”. He is survived by Ann; three children Kate, Tim and Dominic; and four grandsons. 


[1] Fryer, R. H. & Williams, S., “Latecomers to Trade-Union Democracy: The Emergence, Growth, and Role of Union Stewards in the National Union of Public Employees”, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations (2019), 40, (1), 117–152. DOI

17th December 2020