Skip to content
Image/Video Carousel

Professor John Last OBE, 1953-2023

Professor John Last OBE, 1953-2023

When Professor John Last died last week, British arts education lost one of its most tireless and astute advocates. “We are a nation that celebrates our Oscar winners and our big names in fashion, but we don’t ask where they came from,” John once told a national newspaper reporter. “If that education pipeline is broken, we will be poorer as a country.” This was not just a good soundbite but a steadfast and lifelong belief in the connection between arts education and the strength of the UK’s creative sector and industries.

John trusted in art’s potential to enrich lives through craft, technology, careers and industries, to speak to the human condition, and the simple joy of being creative. His advocacy of the arts looked both forward and back. Imagination and creativity are 21st-century skills that cannot be automated, he would say. He was equally sure that a balanced education of arts and sciences was at the heart of a good society; an idea with Renaissance roots but which he feared had fallen out of political favour. 

These convictions took different forms during his tenure as Vice-Chancellor at Norwich University of the Arts. John moved to Norwich in January 2009 as Principal of what was then Norwich University College of the Arts and guided its transition to university status in 2012. His arrival sparked an era of expansion and a growing prestige that he actively cultivated. Student numbers grew by more than a third in five years. The rejuvenation of buildings and the acquisition of new property created  a vibrant new campus for the University and supported the development of an emerging creative quarter in Norwich. It also marked the start of an enduring friendship between John and the first Chancellor of the University, the twice Oscar-nominated and Bafta-winning actor Sir John Hurt, who was followed in this role by the international film director Amma Assante.

John was convinced that the University and the city of Norwich should be known on the national stage as a centre of teaching excellence, innovation and creative endeavour. National awards were won. League table performance improved, leading to a top 10 ranking for teaching excellence by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide. However, John wanted Norwich to be seen as a creative city. This led to the University co-hosting the 2016 British Art Show, the Hayward Gallery’s touring exhibition of four cities – held in Norwich for the first time since the show’s debut in 1979. Damien Hirst’s monumental sculpture, Hymn, was installed on a temporary plinth outside the University’s St George’s building by the Wensum River in 2018. In 2021, the year of John’s retirement, Grayson Perry’s large-scale tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences, were shown in the University’s East Gallery. To bring internationally significant art and artists to Norwich was an important part of the story. The other was John’s more direct advocacy for the arts through his chairing of UKADIA, the United Kingdom Arts and Design Institutions Association, being a vice-chair of GuildHE, and his board memberships of the Higher Education Academy, The Higher Education Statistics Agency, and the Britten Sinfonia, reflecting his passion for music. He championed the creative arts on BBC Radio Four, and authored articles on policy and politics in The Guardian, The Times Higher, The Times Education Supplement, and the Higher Education Policy Institute. With a talent for friendship, and a fascination for the higher education sector and its machinations, John gave sage advice and was a believer in playing the long game. He was recognised with an OBE for his services to Higher Education in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2018.

John read English at the University of Sussex in 1975, took a PGCE at Huddersfield Polytechnic in 1977, and gained an MA in Film Theory from University of Sussex in 1984. He began his teaching career at Croydon College in 1977, where he worked first as a Lecturer in General Studies before becoming a Principal Lecturer in Education, developing and running a large teacher education department with a range of postgraduate awards. In 1995, he was appointed Assistant Principal and Head of Croydon Higher Education Centre, which had 2,000 higher education students and incorporated the teacher education department and business, nursing, law, and the well-respected Croydon School of Art. Before his appointment at Norwich, John was Deputy Principal at the Arts Institute at Bournemouth (AIB) from 1998 to 2008, leading the process that led to securing higher education status. 

In addition to his university and sector commitments, John served on the board of a range of local charities and schools in Norfolk, including the Norwich School, Sapientia Education Trust, and the Forum Trust. He was a connoisseur of fine wine, a fiend at table tennis, and a devoted follower of English cricket with membership of the MCC.

Richard John Last was born on 23 December 1953 to Frederick Albert Last and Vera Anne Last (née Parish) in Stanground, near Peterborough. He married Frederique van Till on 31 May 2019 at Norwich Cathedral. He has a beloved daughter, Kate, a son-in-law Samuel, and a grandson Tom.

Professor John Last OBE died at the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital on the afternoon of Wednesday 9th August 2023, surrounded by his family.

The Funeral is to be held at Norwich Cathedral Church of the Holy Undivided Trinity on Friday 25th August 2023 at 2pm, Norwich, Norfolk NR1 4DH.