Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Foster, John Frederick (1903–1975)

by Owen Parnaby

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Frederick Foster (1903-1975), by unknown photographer, c1934

John Frederick Foster (1903-1975), by unknown photographer, c1934

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1421

John Frederick Foster (1903-1975), university administrator, was born on 28 March 1903 in South Melbourne, eldest son of Victorian-born parents Frederick William Foster, salesman, and his wife Annie Louisa, née McCann. Educated at Wesley College, of which he was dux, and the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1925; LL.M., 1928; M.A., 1932), John was articled to Sir Arthur Robinson and admitted to the Bar on 2 May 1927. In the following year he was appointed tutor and vice-master of Queen's College at the university. The master, Walwyn Kernick, fell gravely ill in 1932 and Foster gave up his practice at the Bar to serve as acting-master. His devotion and loyalty to the college in crisis attracted sympathy in 1934 when he was passed over in favour of Raynor Johnson as master. On 4 December that year Foster married Winifred Betty Bedggood (d.1967) at the college chapel with Methodist forms.

He spent 1935-36 in England, making a survey of British universities as part of a report by the vice-chancellor, (Sir) Raymond Priestley, on the future development of the University of Melbourne. Secretary (1936-47) of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, in 1938 Foster was appointed registrar at the University of Melbourne, the youngest person ever to hold that office. He ably assisted Priestley's successor (Sir) John Medley in implementing Priestley's proposals for the expansion of teaching and research, and from 1939 in the more challenging task of placing the institution on a war footing. Between 1938 and 1947 the number of students at the university trebled, and he won widespread popularity through his rare combination of academic training, administrative ability and friendly manner.

In 1947 Foster went to London as secretary of the Universities Bureau of the British Empire (from 1948 the Association of Universities of the British Commonwealth, and from 1964 the Association of Commonwealth Universities). An indefatigable worker, talker and traveller, he committed himself enthusiastically to his tasks. During his term of office (1947-70) member institutions increased from 70 to 180 and the association became an important forum for debate. It developed procedures for staff selection, student enrolment, the servicing of liaison committees and the administration of the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, of which Foster was secretary (1959-70). He was also secretary (1947-64) of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the United Kingdom, British secretary of the Council of Europe Committee for Higher Education and Research, executive-secretary (1953-70) of the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission, secretary (1966-70) to the Kennedy Memorial Trust and trustee of the British Institute in Paris. Appointed C.M.G. in 1964 for his services to higher education, he was awarded honorary degrees from seven Commonwealth universities, the one he most cherished being the LL.D. (1975) from Melbourne.

Tall, portly, quietly spoken and affable, Foster was a traditionalist who loved the ritual of English public life, yet he remained proudly Australian. Walking and cycling through the English countryside were his favoured recreations. On 2 January 1968 he had married Margaret Sarah Bate at the parish church, Worlingworth, Suffolk. He died on 24 September 1975 in his thatched cottage, Farthingale, at Worlingworth, and was buried in the local churchyard. His wife, vice-principal of St Gabriel's College of Education, London, survived him, as did the son and two daughters of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • O. Parnaby, Queen's College (Melb, 1990)
  • G. Serle, Sir John Medley (Melb, 1993)
  • Wyvern Magazine, 1932
  • Times (London), 6 Oct 1975
  • Sir Charles Wilson, address at memorial service for John Foster, 12 Dec 1975, and correspondence from Sir Albert Sloman (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Owen Parnaby, 'Foster, John Frederick (1903–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/foster-john-frederick-10225/text18077, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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