Life and career
Born in a mining community in West Yorkshire, Birley attended Hemsworth Grammar School, Hemsworth, West Yorkshire. A fervent English patriot and anti-fascist, he enlisted in the Royal Artillery from school in 1944, hoping to contribute to active service in the South-East Asian front. He was quickly transferred to the Intelligence Corps to be trained in Russian and Chinese, and sent to the Russian sector in Berlin, where he served from 1944 to 1947 as a Russian interpreter.
On his return to England, he was awarded an ex-serviceman's scholarship to Queens' College, Cambridge, to read English. In 1951, he was joint winner with J.G. Ballard of a short story competition held by Varsity, the Cambridge student newspaper.
After university he joined the teaching staff of Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, where he taught English between 1952 and 1955. He left the school to become an administrator in the Leeds Education Authority. He continued his career in education administration, rising to become Deputy Director of Education in Liverpool in 1964. He wrote a number of books on management of education in this period. He became involved in Anthony Crosland's consultations about higher education, from which the vision of polytechnics emerged. In 1970, he moved to Northern Ireland and took up the post of Rector of what became the first Ulster Polytechnic, and the first polytechnic in the UK – against determined opposition from the then Unionist government – and, following a government merger of higher education, became the founding Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster.
He was passionately committed to enhancing access to higher education, whilst maintaining the highest of academic standards. When he retired in 1991, he had overseen two decades of massive increases in provision of higher education in Northern Ireland, and equity of representation for Catholic and women students. He was knighted for services to education.
Besides writing and publishing extensively on education, his other passion was the social history of sport. In 1979, he wrote The Willow Wand, 'a strikingly original and robustly demythologising book, criticising the pastoral nostalgia of the genre'. This was voted by a distinguished poll in Wisden Cricketer in July 2010 as the best cricket book of all time. He wrote a three-volume history of sport in Britain in the 1990s which "is unlikely to be surpassed". The second volume won the Aberdare Literary prize in 1995. In 1999, A Social History of English Cricket was named The Cricket Society's Book of the Year and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. It was described as 'a masterpiece', and as 'A profoundly researched, easily and stylishly written book ... with a view to a shelf-life of a good half-century, and as a work of reference a fair way beyond.'
- The Education Officer and His World, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Plymouth (1970)
- An Equal Chance: Equalities and Inequalities of Educational Opportunity, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London (1971, with Anne Dufton)
- Planning and Education, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and Boston (1972)
- Opportunities at Sixteen, HMSO, Belfast (1978)
- The Willow Wand: Some Cricket Myths Explored, Queen Anne Press, London (1979)
- Sport and the Making of Britain, Manchester University Press, Manchester (1993)
- Land of Sport and Glory: Sport and British Society, 1887–1910, Manchester University Press, Manchester (1995)
- Playing the Game: Sport and British Society, 1914–1945, Manchester University Press, Manchester (1995)
- A Social History of English Cricket, Aurum, London (2003)
- McCloy, Don. "Sir Derek Birley". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
- McKee, Ross (2 July 2010). "Poll-topping cricket author was NI university boss". BBC. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
- Death Of Sir Derek Birley, University of Ulster News Release
- University of Ulster Opens £6.5m Sir Derek Birley Learning Resource Centre, 11 October 2002 , News Release
| William Hill Sports Book of the Year winner
| Rector of Ulster College
| Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster
Trevor Arthur Smith, Baron Smith of Clifton
- The Guardian 19/04/09, obit., J.G. Ballard – 'The other winner was DS Birley – later to become Sir Derek Birley, eminent educationalist and author of some classic cricket books.’