Image of Peter Toyne in conversation with Roger Phillips in a lecture theatre

Roscoe Lecture: Professor Peter Toyne

On 26 September 1992, Liverpool Polytechnic became Liverpool John Moores University following an incorporation ceremony in Liverpool Cathedral. A unique Roscoe Lecture took place recently to mark the University’s 25thanniversary, with its first Vice-Chancellor, Professor Peter Toyne, CBE DL, being interviewed by Honorary Fellowand broadcaster Roger Phillips as part of the Roscoe Lecture Series.

The resulting conversation was a fascinating trip down memory lane, with Professor Toyne, who was Rector at Liverpool Polytechnic between 1986 and 1992 and LJMU Vice-Chancellor from 1992 to 2000, taking the audience on a journey from his childhood in a small mining village in Yorkshire to Militant Merseyside in the 1980s and the foundation of LJMU, the 2017 University of the Year.

As a child, ‘Brainy Toyney’, as he was often called, never felt he fitted in and as a scholarship boy, he discovered a world of new possibilities at Ripon Grammar School that enabled him to forge his own path rather than following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a butcher. Next came studies at Bristol University, where he gained a First Class degree and began his career in academia. “I loved to lecture because I was performing, and you could really inspire people,” explained Professor Toyne, though he admitted he didn’t like the research.

Next, he worked for the Department of Education and Science on the Educational Credit Transfer, exploring how access to university could be widened by considering work and life experiences not just academic grades. As Deputy Rector of Chichester College, Professor Toyne had the freedom to further experiment with ideas he’d explored in the DfES, before moving onto “a place of revolution”, North East London Polytechnic.

When he was first approached by the City of Liverpool about the role of Rector at Liverpool Polytechnic he initially thought it was a practical joke, but he passed the interview and duly took on the role in 1986. He admitted that his first impressions of the Poly were less than positive. “It was a tip,” he said. “It was desperate, really desperate. I thought there’s only one way this can go and it’s up!”

Once Rector, he set about widening access to Liverpool Poly. “No-one wanted to know about Liverpool,” he explained. “The University of Liverpool was struggling too, so we worked in partnership. All the city movers and shakers got together. Without this partnership we wouldn’t have been seen as an integral part of the fabric of the Liverpool way of life and community.”

His vision for the Poly benefited not just students but Liverpool too, with campus improvements and the transformation of the former North Western Hotel into student accommodation helping to regenerate the city centre. Then in 1988, the Educational Reform Act came into force that meant the Poly was funded directly by the Government. “This was the beginning of a new era, a mixture of relief and worry, but we were freestanding and we could dream dreams,” said Professor Toyne. “We grew and we grew. We had great staff working as one. We had a vision, we had zeal.”

This zeal saw Professor Toyne play an instrumental role in government talks about polytechnics getting university status, which duly happened in 1992. “We wanted to be named after someone who spoke volumes about ‘potential becomes reality’. John Moores grew from nothing, set up the pools empire and more besides, and was a great benefactor,” said Professor Toyne, when asked how the University got its name. “He was the total role model for a new kind of institution that was opening opportunity for anyone that might benefit and then go on to make a huge contribution to society.

“That ‘can do’ attitude takes me back to almost where I started, when I went to Ripon and realised that I could do things as well,” concluded Professor Toyne. “I’ve got to say this, yes I was in charge, but none of this would have been possible had it not been for that network of people who became great supporters and the incredible dedicated staff who shared a vision about potential becoming reality.”

You can listen back to Professor Peter Toyne's Roscoe Lecture here