Bob Fryer 1944-2020

Keith Hodgson’s appreciation is below. See also this Guardian ‘Other Lives’ piece by Bob’s wife, Ann Fryer.

Remembering Bob Fryer

From Keith Hodgson

The death of Bob Fryer in December 2020 was a huge loss to the trade union movement as well as the world of adult education. He had an enormous influence on the development and modernisation of trade unions, particularly the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and UNISON, as well as becoming a towering figure in the world of lifelong learning and working-class education.

Bob was a life-long friend of NUPE, at all levels of the union. While he was a great personal friend and mentor to Alan Fisher, Bernard Dix, Rodney Bickerstaffe and Tom Sawyer, anyone who saw him engage with members of the union would witness his ability to connect with people. Many of us were proud to call him a friend and spend time in his company.

I first became aware of Bob through his academic work at Warwick University where he was a senior lecturer specialising in trade union organisational behaviour under Professor Hugh Clegg. While there he was asked by the NUPE National Executive to lead a small team of researchers to look at the structure and operation of NUPE. This report, Organisation and Change in NUPE, became known as the ‘Warwick Report’ and was published in August 1974.1 It proved to be a towering achievement and was to radically reform the union, creating a whole new brand of union stewards with much more democratic branch, district and divisional structures. But perhaps the most exciting change was the creation of five reserved seats on the National Executive for women members. At that time unions were almost universally male preserves and NUPE was no exception. This simple revolutionary change broke the glass ceiling, and effectively led the way for other unions and the Labour Party to adopt similar rules. Partly as a result of these reforms, NUPE grew remarkably rapidly during that decade. It also led in early 1981 to the appointment of regional education officers and also regional women’s officers.

Bob was a great friend to the North East and was tremendously knowledgeable. I have a particularly vivid memory of a two day NUPE officer strategy discussion in one of the colleges of Durham University in 1998. Bob led the first day with a slide of just 5 bullet points, which he used to generate reflection and discussion with warmth and humour throughout the whole day. He had a unique ability to get the most out of people and encourage them to think creatively.

It was no surprise that when the possibility of merger to create a much larger public service union was mooted NUPE turned to Bob to be a key academic advisor. By this time Bob was the principal at Northern College in Barnsley and well regarded across the trade union movement.

The intention to create a large public service union bringing together NUPE, the National and Local Government Officers Association (NALGO) and the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE) was never going to be an easy task and Bob’s intelligence, detailed knowledge, collective respect and warmth made a crucial difference in holding the ring and establishing common ground in the negotiations. It was on 1 July 1993 that UNISON came into existence. He was one of the few people ever to be given a lifetime membership of NUPE and, despite never having been an official or a member; he arguably has had the most influence in shaping the course of public service unionism over the last 50 years.

He was similarly effective and influential in adult learning. In 1983 he took charge of Northern College, a residential college providing opportunities for working class students and trade union members. While there he met David Blunkett, the leader of Sheffield Council at the time, and had a considerable influence on his thinking. So much so that, in the Labour Government of 1997, when Blunkett, as an MP, was given the education brief, he asked Bob to lead on Lifelong Learning. It was directly from this link that Union Learning Reps, the Union Learning Fund and Individual Learning Accounts came to define the early years of that government.

In 2001 he was appointed by Alan Milburn, then Secretary of State for Health, as Head of the newly created NHS University which was designed to create a similar model to the Open University in order to enable many of the NHS employees to access professional development and learning opportunities. It was in this capacity that he accepted my invitation to officially launch Bridges to Learning (B2L) in the UNISON offices in Newcastle on 4 April 2003. B2L was a ground breaking partnership with the Workers’ Educational Association, UNISON and the Open University (OU), using the Union Learning Fund to support union learning representatives in public services, such as local hospitals, and to develop progression routes into adult learning. His willingness to launch B2L was a great coup and brought many NHS managers involved in learning to the event. His warmth and humour was particularly engaging and he really celebrated the union learning representatives who spoke. Following the success of this launch, for the next 20 years B2L provided real opportunities to thousands of workers, who had missed out on learning at school, in order to get back into learning and to develop. Sadly the same could not be said for the NHS University. Bob was acutely aware of the setting up of the OU under Harold Wilson’s government 35 years previously, and the attempt by the established university sector to bring it down. It had required considerable defending by Wilson’s Cabinet to ensure the OU survived. Bob knew a similar attack would be made on the idea of the NHS University but, sadly, the Blair government failed to stand up to those same vested interests, and what could have been a major achievement was quietly killed off. Bob continued as a Chief Learning Advisor to the Department for Health, championing the cause of widening participation. He went on to play a leading role in the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE) and in the Moser Report on Adult Basic Skills.2 He produced many books and articles, including a history of NUPE with Steve Williams, but I particularly treasure my copy of his book Promises of Freedom – Citizenship, Belonging and Lifelong Learning for the comments he wrote inside when he signed it at the Lit and Phil.3

I last saw Bob in April 2018 at the Rodney Bickerstaffe Memorial Event in London when I was with my daughter. He was warm and charming to her and gently teased me in his inimitable style. No wonder he was loved by so many.

  1. H. Fryer et al, Organisation and Change in NUPE, University of Warwick Research Report delivered to the National Executive of NUPE, August 1974.
  2. Improving literacy and numeracy: a fresh start, Report of the Working Group chaired by Sir Claus Moser (London: HMSO, I999).
  3. Stephen Williams and R. H. Fryer, Leadership and Democracy – the History of the National Union of Public Employees, Vol 2 1928-1993, (London: Laurence and Wishart, 2011); R. H. Fryer, Promises of Freedom: Citizenship, Belonging and Lifelong Learning (Leicester: NIACE, 2010).

This appreciation was first published in North East History, Volume 52, 2021