About the University of Leicester

Dr Ken Edwards

Headshot of Dr Ken EdwardsLeicester’s fourth Vice-Chancellor, who was instrumental in strengthening the leadership of the University and described as a ‘man to make things happen’, has died.

Dr Ken Edwards passed away on Wednesday 1 May 2024, he was 90 years old.

  • A memorial service for Ken Edwards will be held on the afternoon of Thursday 30 May 2024 in Cambridge. Anyone who knew Ken or who would like to pay their respects is welcome to attend. Please email T.Edwards@lboro.ac.uk for details.

The University's first three Vice-Chancellors were all social scientists and the arrival of Ken was timely. He was a scientist, a Cambridge geneticist who had held a senior managerial position. His experience helped address a need for support for the science and medical science provision and the management structures of the University. 

The job at the University suited his ‘butterfly’ mind, he would recall in an interview after his retirement. He said; ‘I had a good reason for going round departments and asking what they were doing; my greatest joy was doing this, asking to see what was most exciting, and having a range of interests was an effective tool in being Vice-Chancellor.’

Ken saw Leicester as an opportunity to lead the institution at an exciting time and through a period of considerable change. When he accepted the job there were still discussions in government circles about the effect of the declining number of 18-year-olds and there was talk of closing some universities. As Leicester had a medical school Ken felt confident it wouldn’t close and in fact the number of 18-year-olds going to university rose sharply with huge numbers of the population pursuing Higher Education. In his 12-year tenure Leicester grew from some 5,000 students to almost 15,000.

He also had a personal link to Leicester as his parents-in-law lived in Avenue Road, close to the University, and he and his wife Janet were able to spend more time with them during the latter years of their life.

Ken Edwards shaking hands at council presentationKen’s leadership skills were soon admired, not just by Leicester staff, but nationally, and in due course he was elected as Chair of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (the predecessor of Universities UK). During this time polytechnics were upgraded to universities and Ken spoke for all institutions in his national role. He also championed research into the value of going to university and saw many changes in the sector including the introduction of fees and demands for greater accountability around research and civic endeavours.

His commitment to ensuring the University played an important part in the City and county demonstrated how he believed universities should be useful in their localities. The development of the Attenborough Arts Centre was one of many examples of this engagement with the community.

The National Space Centre was also established in Leicester during his leadership and he remembered one occasion when the then Secretary of State Kenneth Baker attended the opening and visited campus, only to be splattered with yogurt by protestors.

The Secretary of State turned to Ken and in an awkward exchange asked him whether he was ultimately responsible for security. Ken said that he did indeed know this responsibility lay with him.

But Ken was known for remaining calm under pressure. On another occasion seconds before he was about to start a graduation ceremony he was told the Chancellor could no longer attend. Ken just carried on regardless and no one was any the wiser.

European universities also looked to his leadership, and Ken became President of CRE (Conférence permanente des Recteurs, Présidents et Vice-Chanceliers des Universités européennes), and so instrumental in the shaping of the Bologna Process.

Ken Edwards at VC signing shaking handsBefore his retirement in 1999 he was able to welcome the success of the joint bid between the University of Warwick and the University of Leicester to establish the Leicester-Warwick Medical School. The project illustrated Ken’s belief in the benefits of universities collaborating with one another.

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leicester said: "I had the pleasure of meeting with Ken and Janet just a few years ago. We talked a lot about Leicester and the changes in the sector, both positive and negative, over the last 25 years. While frail, his mind and his brain were active, and I got a real glimpse into what had made him such an inspirational leader.

"Ken leaves an abiding legacy and the building that bears his name stands as a testament to his impact and contribution.  His portrait hangs in our Council chamber and signals to all that the strength of the University is built upon those who contributed to it and made a transformative impact.

"While his loss is deeply felt, his memory will be cherished by all who were fortunate enough to have known him. The University will be commemorating his loss and legacy in a fitting way in due course."

Born in Shropshire in 1934, Ken was an only child and grew up on a small farm where his parents were tenants.

He attended the local grammar school where he gained an interest in science and decided to combine his rural background and interest in agriculture with science.

He attended Reading University to study agriculture and botany, and it was there he met Janet his wife. As his course progressed an interest in genetics overtook his choice of botany. He said he especially enjoyed the ingenuity of applying facts, establishing the basic material of life and giving the code through the sequence of DNA. He continued his studies with a PhD at Aberystwyth University, working for what was then the Agricultural Research Council.

After several years at Aberystwyth, where family life saw him welcome three children, a daughter and two sons, he took a secondment at the University of Birmingham and enjoyed it so much he began to look for teaching jobs.

Ken Edwards with Sir David Attenborough at the opening of the Attenborough ArboretumIn 1966 he got a job as a Lecturer in the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge. In 1971 he was elected to a Fellowship at St John's College, Cambridge and served as Secretary to the College Council from 1975-77. In 1981 he became Head of the Genetics Department of Cambridge until 1984. From 1982 he was also Chairman of the Council of the School of Biological Sciences. In 1984 he was appointed to the post of Secretary General of the Faculties, one of the three principal administrative offices of the University of Cambridge.

Ken was presented with an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Leicester in 1999, described as a ‘man who made things happen’ at a crucial time for Higher Education.

He was succeeded as Vice-Chancellor by Sir Bob Burgess.

Arrangements for Ken’s funeral are taking place and will be shared with our community once confirmed.

Staff, alumni and others who knew Dr Edwards are invited to sign our online book of condolences


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