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Mrs Gillian Roberts (1946-2010): The Last Academic Registrar of the University of London

Mrs Gillian Roberts (née Murray) was the last Academic Registrar of the University of London; her retirement in 2006 marked the final stage in the university’s transition from a truly federal academy to what is in effect a loose confederation of academically independent colleges and institutes. As the most senior academic administrator of the university, Mrs. Roberts pivotally assisted in this transition, even though she privately regretted it.

Gillian Frances Murray was born on 3 November 1946 and educated at Sydenham High School and the University of Southampton. In 1967 she was appointed to the Academic Department of the University of London, located at the Senate House in Malet Street. A painstaking draftswoman, of scrupulous integrity and equally meticulous discretion, she moved inevitably up the hierarchical ladder, specialising in the robust academic management of the vast portfolio of degree programmes offered both by the federal university, by its constituent colleges and through its world-renowned system of external degrees.

At that time no college exercised its own degree-awarding powers; institutions so empowered that were admitted to the federation had to agree not to use such powers as they might have had. All degree proposals had to be vetted by subject-based and federally located “Boards of Studies” before being submitted to the democratically elected Academic Council that acted as the most senior academic quality assurance body in the entire university.

This matrix ensured federal oversight, by the university, of all degrees awarded in its name. But it was already under attack when Mrs. Roberts succeeded to the post of Academic Registrar in 1983. Some of the university’s constituent colleges were then already larger than some unitary self-governing universities. The 1992 transformation of the polytechnics into universities with their own degree-awarding powers added to the pressure for change. But the fatal blow to federal oversight of academic standards was delivered by a cabal of college heads, frustrated that policies they could push through their respective institutions could – and not infrequently were – vetoed at federal level, sometimes on the initiative of their own academic staff.

As Academic Registrar Mrs. Roberts was also secretary to the Senate, in which capacity it fell to her to oversee two major reforms of the university’s structure as well as innumerable academic reviews. That the university still survives owes much to her diplomatic skills, exercised always as a loyal servant of the university but also as champion of its reputation for academic excellence.

For many years Mrs. Roberts acted as the representative of the university on the City Parochial Foundation. She died on 9 September 2010 and is survived by her husband, Andrew Clive Roberts, whom she married in 1969. There were no children of the marriage.

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