Historian and Canterbury University Vice-chancellor. Died aged 85.

New Zealand-born academic Neville Phillips, who has died in England aged 85, was one of the few people to cross swords with Robert Muldoon and win.

As University of Canterbury vice-chancellor, Professor Phillips had come under personal attack from Mr (later Sir Robert) Muldoon, after taking exception to the future Prime Minister's view that New Zealand universities of the 1960s were failing to meet society's "practical needs."

The Finance Minister had said that universities should play down scholarship in favour of vocational studies geared to the requirements of the national economy.

Professor Phillips, who decided that academic standards were under terminal threat, argued that the Muldoon formula would produce an intellectually illiterate, unenlightened society.

In an address later widely distributed in a pamphlet, Professor Phillips said that universities had to "steer a firm middle course, not because it is easier to compromise but because it is right."

His view became a rallying point for New Zealand academics, and Mr Muldoon eventually opted for a rare retreat.

Professor Phillips, a historian, was instrumental in moving Canterbury University from an inner-city site to Ilam, but ensured that historic university buildings escaped demolition.

He was vice-chancellor for 11 years, from 1966 until a heart attack forced his retirement.

"Though a New Zealander by birth and fierce conviction, his historical focus and personal values were firmly, if not exclusively, rooted in Europe," Britain's Independent newspaper wrote in an obituary.

"As one of his country's leading historians, and later as a university administrator of intense commitment and wide-ranging influence, Professor Phillips remained powerfully attached to the belief that New Zealanders shortchanged themselves if they discounted their colonial and postcolonial past in favour of a narrowly regional sense of national identity."

Professor Phillips, who died in Kent on June 29, combined his history studies with work as a journalist until he graduated in 1938 with a first-class Master of Arts from the-then Canterbury College.

He went on a scholarship to Oxford University, but his studies were interrupted by the war.

He enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a gunner, rose to the rank of major and was mentioned in dispatches for his deeds in Tunisia and Italy.

He returned to New Zealand after the war to lecture in history at Canterbury College. At the age of 33, he was appointed History and Political Science Professor, a chair he held for 17 years.

His "sometimes spiky exterior could swiftly give way to personal warmth and wry humour when he decided that he was in the presence of someone genuinely interested in the past," The Independent said.

Lectures were often "bravura performances, attracting large audiences."

In 1978, he and his wife retired to Canterbury, in Kent.

They shared the British passion for countryside rambling. A cricket enthusiast, Professor Phillips' loyalties were torn when New Zealand played England.

"The dilemma tended to be resolved in New Zealand's favour whenever the country to which he had devoted his professional life won the occasional test match," his obituary said.