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Robert Allison


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Robert Allison to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck.

Robert is the most modest of men and I suspect is highly embarrassed by the attention being paid him today. I can hear him saying “Oh I really don’t deserve this – I was just doing my job”.

That job was hugely important to an organisation like Birkbeck. The Birkbeck community is made up of people who are very much front of house – students, lecturers, professors, vice chancellors. But behind the scenes there are many others. Robert was one of these. He has been a special advisor to the Board and then Governor since 2008, clocking up an impressive 16 years of service.

He sat on the Finance and General Purposes and Investment Committees. Keith Willet, Director of Finance, describes him as “thoughtful, understanding and a critical friend, particularly through periods of financial challenge”. But his skills were not restricted to finance. He was on the Nominations Committee and supported Matt Innes on the Law School Review, which I am told he did with “politesse and a lightness the most would struggle with in such a complex situation”.

2008 was one hell of a year to start his association with Birkbeck. It was the year in which the government introduced ELQ – its Equivalent and Lower Qualification Policy. Overnight Birkbeck suffered a 30% drop in its teaching income. As Joanna Bourke states in her recent history of Birkbeck – this “was a devastating attack on Birkbeck’s mission”. This had come hard on the heels of the introduction of student fees and a rapid decline in the number of students wanting to study part time.

The management of the College had to act fast and radically. The College was reorganised into fewer, larger schools with devolved management, and three year “full time but still only in the evenings” degree programmes were introduced. Those of us on the Governing Body remain in awe of our students who manage to fit a degree into evening study over four years let alone three, often whilst holding down jobs or caring responsibilities during the day.

Close on the heels of ELQ came the hike in student fees to £9000, Brexit, COVID and a massive downward revaluation of the USS pension scheme. If those challenges weren’t enough, the College was desperately in need of new space and made new major investments in buildings in Euston Road and Birkbeck Central.
It has been a very busy and extremely challenging 16 years. Throughout, Robert has probed, inquired, advised and held accountable the management of Birkbeck. All behind the scenes, quietly, assiduously, and with acuity. Always with a disarming smile and wonderful good humour, even in the driest of meetings.

Robert hails from Yorkshire. His father and grandfather were sheep farmers in the Dales. Childhood was happy, but not easy – his grandparents both died in the Spanish flu epidemic. They had nine children but just one farm and his grandfather left no will. The farm had to be sold and the proceeds shared nine ways. Robert’s father, the youngest of the nine, carried on farming on a much smaller holding.

However, Robert flourished. He went to Ripon Grammar School and then on to Manchester University where he read mathematics. London called and Robert joined the accounting firm Peat, Marwick Mitchell – later to become KPMG. He soon made his mark, travelling widely and advising many major companies. He was made a partner in the mid 1980s and eventually headed up the firm’s Global Transportation Practice and sat on the firm’s Client Service Board until he retired in the 2010s.

As retirement approached, his Yorkshire roots started tugging on his heart strings. He and his wife (who studied for a Diploma in History of Art at Birkbeck) bought a hill farm, with what he claims is the best view in Wensleydale. Although he granted eatage rights on most of his land to a local farmer, he was very actively involved in managing that land. Perhaps ahead of the curve, he returned much of it back to herbage meadows, reseeding the fields with many varieties of wildflower, and considerably increasing the biodiversity of the farm. He also became proficient at mending dry stone walls.

Splitting his time between Yorkshire and London, Robert not only took on his role at Birkbeck but also supported a number of other charities, which cater for adults with learning difficulties and helping young people who are finding life tough. He has recently sold the Yorkshire farm and has now settled into a peaceful life in Sussex.

He will be missed on the Board of Governors and should be thanked wholeheartedly for his service to Birkbeck. It is for his contributions to our community, and his passionate belief in Birkbeck's mission, that makes us proud to admit him to a College Fellowship.