Champion of education's underdogs

6th October 2006 at 01:00
More official documents were leaked to Ngaio Crequer in her lifetime than to almost any other national newspaper journalist. The former deputy FE editor for The TES, who died suddenly last week, made exclusives her trademark.

Whether it was in the famous pursuit of former Association of Colleges chief executive Roger Ward, and his improper dealings with the healthcare company Burke Ford Reed, or in her tenacious pursuit of the truth behind the closure of debt-wrecked Bilston College, leaks were her stock-in-trade.

Her part in the Roger Ward affair led to the resignation of the entire AoC board. And, to the last, she remained convinced there was an official cover-up and "disgraceful" manoeuvring behind the scenes over Bilston.

The reason why she had so many leaks was that people trusted her. Yet many of the hopeful leakers - including college principals and university vice chancellors - found the interrogation spotlight turned on them as she sought further, more convincing evidence.

Ngaio Crequer was one of the old school of journalists, apprenticed to the regional press and progressing rapidly to national newspapers. After graduating from Manchester university, where she became NUS president and, incidentally Manchester United's most passionate fan, she joined the Birmingham Post.

Judith Judd, editor of The TES, was then on the Post and vividly recalls Ngaio's arrival. "I was asked to mentor Ngaio when she arrived as a cub reporter more than 30 years ago but I'm not sure who did the mentoring,"

she recalls. "She was a natural journalist with an unerring eye for news stories and a phenomenal determination in pursuing them."

When Ngaio moved to the Times Higher Education Supplement, she set about finding an astonishing series of scoops about universities. "Her news gathering style was unique" said Ms Judd. "She would berate a room full of vice-chancellors for not getting their act together and still manage to charm them."

Her scoops included an expose on the financial failure of six universities and efforts of the Essex university vice-chancellor Martin Harris to shed the institution of its radically unthinking leftist image.

A left-winger and feminist herself, Ngaio was not afraid to take on the so-called radicals she saw damaging the university. Peter Scott, then editor of the THES, said. "Ngaio was one of the key people who established the reputation of the paper in the 1980s. She covered universities, then restricted to what we now call the 'pre-1992' universities, with exceptional enthusiasm - exceptional because, for Ngaio, nothing was more important than universities, a commitment that went back to her days as Student Union president."

Professor Scott, now vice-chancellor of Kingston university, enjoyed the competition between his two top reporters. "In gentle rivalry with John O'Leary, now The THES's editor, who was covering the other half of higher education, the former polytechnics, Ngaio gave the paper an unrivalled authority. But her service was not just to her newspaper. It was also to higher education, which has been given a voice, a stake in the public policy world it never had before."

Ngaio's genius was quickly spotted by Andreas Whittam Smith, who recruited her as higher education reporter when he created the Independent in 1986 with "education" at its heart. So passionate was she for HE that she turned down his subsequent plea to her to become political editor.

Peter Wilby, former Independent on Sunday and New Statesman editor, speaks of her in those days with wry amusement. "Ngaio, I always said, was the only journalist in history to appoint her own boss.

"The Independent founding editors quickly recruited Ngaio, but told her they needed someone more experienced to head the team. She did not demur, but made it abundantly clear it had better be someone of whom she approved.

I was lucky enough to pass this exacting test.

"It proved, in the four years we worked together, among the most rewarding relationships of my working life. She was utterly fearless: 'wipe that smile off your face,' she once barked at Kenneth Baker, then education secretary, who indeed always seemed to be smiling becausehis face was shaped that way.

"The bigger the target or the more complex the story, the more determined was Ngaio in her pursuit. She brought the Independent a string of scoops, ranging from scandals in the highest echelons of academia to the latest shifts in higher education policy. (She chronicled, with extraordinary acuity, the drift towards the marketisation of universities, then just beginning).

"Sometimes, I would pass her a mere scrap of information - a casual ministerial aside, perhaps - and suggest she follow it up. Within days, sometimes hours, a copper-bottomed exclusive would be on my desk."

Ngaio was fiery and uncompromising, charming by nature and faithful by temperament. But she would never suffer fools gladly. Relationships with contacts were seldom formal or merely professional. She took people to heart in a genuinely human way.

When she joined The TES in 1998, she adopted the cause of FE with an even greater passion than she had for HE and developed contacts in her inimitable style. She spotted a sector she believed was even more poorly treated, short-changed and pushed around by officials and politicians than universities.

Not everyone saw her commitment to the cause in quite that light. After Ngaio's part in the downfall of Roger Ward, she had a "spirited"

relationship with his successor David Gibson. "At her best, she was excellent, tenacious and wrote well," he said. "Then there were times when I could wring her neck - but then I suppose she was just doing her job."

When covering higher education, Ngaio developed the trust of a nexus of about 10 people managing universities, including Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, then chairman of the University Grants Committee, who trusted her and fed her stories. She rapidly developed the same tactic in FE - often to the fury of bodies such as the Learning and Skills Council. In the inner sanctum of her circle were the bon vivants - the lovers of good food and drink.

One of the select, Roger Brown, vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent university, said: "I always found her to be a hardworking, thoroughly professional journalist. She also liked a bit of gossip over the odd drink.

Her parting is a sad loss to the cause of serious educational journalism."

Peter Wilby sums up what so many people have said on news of her death:

"Ngaio was fierce in her enmities, equally so in her loyalties. To me, she was not only a brilliant colleague, but also a warm friend. To have worked with her was a privilege."

Judith Judd said: "At The TES she used her formidable skills to investigate further education. She was a brilliant reporter and a loyal colleague."

And Peter Scott summed up what all her friends - and the family she dearly loved - will be thinking: "Above all, Ngaio was a very good friend and colleague, a presence who could never be overlooked. For her friends, her absence will be almost too hard to bear."

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