Ronald Kay, OBE obituary

Born 1920, died 2019. A graduate of the School of English (BA English 1940).

Ronald Kay and his wife Brigitte

Ronald Kay was executive head of UCCA (the forerunner to UCAS) from its foundation in 1961 until his retirement in 1985.

Leslie Ronald Kay was born in Sheffield on 4 March 1920, the son of Ernest, a cutler who left school at 13, and May, a piano teacher. With the support and encouragement of a Miss Denny, an inspirational teacher at the Western Road primary school, he won a scholarship place at King Edward VII grammar school. His performance at the school was unspectacular (the headmaster's report said he was "not in the first rank intellectually" but had "all-round ability"). He enjoyed the school orchestra, school plays, and cross-country running, but felt out of his depth academically until he reached the sixth form. But then, he managed to win a place at the University of Sheffield with a coveted Edgar Allen scholarship worth £100 a year, to read English.

As an undergraduate he edited the University magazine ‘Arrows’, ran gruelling cross-country races over the moors, and played violin with the University orchestra in the Firth Hall. He liked to quote from a prologue he wrote for a performance of Congreve's play ‘Love for Love’, which concluded:

“Mankind, 'tis sure, still cuts this kind of caper:
You ask for proof? Read next week's Sunday paper.”

Academically, he remembered the course as being biased towards the older classics: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton. But he also read Grahame Greene, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot. Coming from a working-class background, he found that familiarity with these authors made him more confident at mixing with students (and later colleagues) from any walk of life. However, he later regretted having no grounding in science or technology.

He took his finals with the war in full swing in 1940, and celebrated by cycling to the Lake District, somewhat hampered by the fact that all signposts had been removed, while locals were reluctant to give directions to strangers. The Army decided that with poor eyesight, he couldn't be trusted with a rifle, so he took a clerical job with the Government Assistance Board in Sheffield, where he encountered the power of the trade unions: if you got too much work done in a day, the shop steward would take you aside and tell you off. But it did give him an insight into the misery of the elderly and poor in the industrial city.

After a year of this, he transferred to the Ministry of Shipping in London, which soon afterwards became the Ministry of War Transport. His duties as a junior civil servant were highly varied. The Ministry's main priorities were to ensure there were sufficient ships to transport civilian and military supplies, and to minimise the number sunk by German submarines. But he was also tasked with organising transfers of prisoners-of-war - notably a major exchange, involving thousands of men, on the neutral Swedish liner the SS Drottnigholm, via Leith in Scotland and Gothenburg in Sweden. Another project involved arranging a safe-conduct return of a German vessel, which the Royal Navy had seized, but that was later deemed to be entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention as a hospital ship.

In London, he found time to develop his musical interests. He happened to share an office with the composer Gerald Finzi, who was able to give him advice. He joined the London University choir, attended many concerts, took singing lessons (accompanied by the sister of the jazz trumpeter Johnny Dankworth), joined a madrigal group, and sang in the first performance of Michael Tippett's oratorio "Child of our Time". On other evenings, he exercised with the Home Guard in Hyde Park.

At the end of hostilities, he joined the Control Commission responsible for administering and rebuilding a defeated Germany. He was given a choice of cities for his first posting and chose Hannover, where he found himself billeted in the family home of Brigitte Albert, with whom he would subsequently enjoy 69 years of marriage. Apart from that, however, he found his time in Germany frustrating because of the difficulty of getting anything done when so much clearly needed to happen. After a year, with help from his former tutor at Sheffield, Harold Orton, he joined the British Council, and got a job lecturing in English at the University of Copenhagen.

He stayed in Denmark for four years, enjoying a relaxed life where he was free to decide his teaching priorities. Much of his income was spent on singing lessons: his ambition at the time was to make a career as a tenor soloist. He kept in contact with Brigitte by letter, and they married in August 1949. Their first daughter arrived the next summer, and they then moved to Vienna, still with the British Council. With a second child on the way, however, the idea of life as an itinerant and impoverished second-rank singer began to pall, and they decided to settle in England, where Ronald was successful in obtaining the post of Assistant Registrar at the University of Leeds.

At Leeds, he was responsible for university admissions, where he found the system stretched to its limits. Producing lists of students by faculty and course, and ensuring that students were accommodated and their fees paid, required an army of clerks that the University simply did not possess. And the plans were for significant growth over the coming decade, to cope with the "bulge" in the birth-rate and the expected expansion of higher education which eventually followed the Robbins Report of 1963. He found himself in conversation with a neighbour, Sandy Douglas, who ran the University's giant Pegasus computer, and who had an interest in university administration from his time as Junior Bursar at Trinity College Cambridge. Together they hatched a scheme to put the matriculation records on computer and print the different reports required by the various university departments. It was probably one of the first attempts to apply computers to the work of university administration, and both Ronald Kay and Sandy Douglas were soon arguing for similar rationalisation to take place at a national level. Schools were lobbying hard for universities to adopt a more coherent approach to the admissions process, with common timetables and a common application form. And privately, the government was making it clear that if the universities didn't sort their act out, they couldn't take their continued independence for granted.

A series of conferences and working parties culminated in the decision to set up UCCA as a central clearing-house for applications to all universities. Ronald Kay was given the task (initially on secondment from Leeds) of doing the detailed planning, and spent a year in 1961-2 weekly-commuting from Leeds to London to recruit staff, rent office space, design forms and procedures, and install the equipment to run the operation. They decided to start with punched card equipment because programming a computer would take too long; the first of many technical decisions that proved prudent. UCCA ran a pilot scheme for the entry of 1963, and by the following year it was handling applications to nearly all the institutions (some, such as Oxford and Cambridge, the Scottish Universities, and the medical schools, joined over the next few years).

Meanwhile the family was growing: by 1959 Ronald and Brigitte had six children under the age of ten. In 1962 they moved to the London commuter belt (Fleet, in Hampshire), and then in 1968 they moved again when the office relocated to Cheltenham. Ronald was always proud that all his senior management team, and a great many of the more junior staff, uprooted themselves to stay with UCCA when it transferred.

Ronald stayed at the helm with UCCA until his retirement in 1985. During that time, there were many technology changes (particularly the introduction of online data exchange with the examining boards and then the universities) but the basic principles of the scheme remained intact and are still recognisable today in the internet-based operations of its successor, UCAS.

Ronald and Brigitte enjoyed a long and active retirement, with music taking centre stage: he sang for many years with the Cheltenham Bach Choir, and took a job as music correspondent for the local paper, which provided weekly tickets to concerts in exchange for a 200-word review to be submitted early the next morning. The family continued to grow. Brigitte died aged 94 on 13 February 2019, with Ronald following aged 99 on 17 May 2019. They are survived by their six children, twelve grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren; among that number, three are themselves Sheffield alumni.