Fraser Woodburn obituary

·3 min read

My friend and colleague Fraser Woodburn, who has died aged 70 of cancer, was a top administrator in UK higher education for more than two decades.

From 1977 to 1980, he carried out various roles in university administration at the University of Stirling. He then moved to Edinburgh University (1980-88), where he held administrative appointments with responsibility for postgraduate affairs, computing policy and, latterly, planning and resource allocation. Fraser was also academic registrar at Hull (1988-92), and university secretary at Essex (1992-98).

He served his longest tenure (1999-2015) as university secretary at the Open University, where he was responsible to the vice-chancellor for the administration of the university and to the council for the governance of the institution.

Inspirational and dedicated, Fraser thought in a strategic way that won admiration from all who worked with him. He supported institutions through significant changes and made a huge contribution to the OU. With great deftness he navigated the institution through some very challenging times, particularly the changes in the higher education fees and funding regime in England, when he was pivotal in the university successfully making the case for part-time students to have access to loans on a par with full-time students.

Fraser was responsible for unusually complex, panoptic briefs, stretching from governance and finance to government relations and capital projects. Many of the OU’s successes in groundbreaking research, world-class teaching and creative innovation were made possible thanks to his exceptional leadership.

Known for his kindness, wit, willingness to listen, astute problem-solving and practical encouragement to staff at all levels, Fraser was a member of Humanists UK. He said the critical factor that had helped him to succeed in life was understanding that many people do difficult things well and make an important contribution.

In retirement he became a member of the governing board, and, later, senior independent director, of the University of Suffolk (2016-21). He was also a member of the audit committee of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (2004-10).

As well as reaching the pinnacle of his profession, he was a great family man. Born in Ayr, to Anna (nee Hogg) and Alexander, a civil servant, Fraser had a twin brother, Robin, and two older sisters, Rosemary and Sandra. After attending Boroughmuir high school in Edinburgh (1963-69), he graduated in 1973 with a BSc (Hons) in mathematical physics from the University of Edinburgh, where he attended lectures by Peter Higgs, of the Higgs boson. He obtained a diploma in public administration from the Napier College of Commerce and Technology, also in Edinburgh.

Fraser met Anne De Roeck, now emeritus professor at the Open University, in 1992, when he first joined the University of Essex, where she was a lecturer in computer science. They married in 2005.

He is survived by Anne, his children, Nicola and Graham, from a previous marriage that ended in divorce, by his stepchildren, Max and Emma, grandchildren, Alex, Poppy and Albie, and Robin and Sandra. Rosemary died in 2018.

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