100 years of women in FE and skills. Creating a culture of equality: Alice Brown

100 years of women in FE and skills. Creating a culture of equality: Alice Brown

28th August 2018

In the latest in FETL’s series on the women who shaped further education in the UK, we consider the groundbreaking career of Alice Brown, the University of Edinburgh’s first female vice-principal whose public life has been characterised by a commitment to social justice and equality of opportunity

Born in Edinburgh in 1946, Alice Brown left school aged 15 to ‘get a proper job’. She worked as a shorthand typist for an insurance company, leaving in 1964 when she became engaged, as it was the policy of the company not to employ married women. She joined a firm of surveyors where, she later recalled, she was treated as an equal and was able to learn the business. However, her limited qualifications prevented her from progressing as far as she might have. At the time, her husband was studying at university so it wasn’t possible for Brown to return to education. She spent the next seven years supporting her husband’s studies and looking after their two children, undertaking ‘odd jobs and bits and pieces just to keep the home going’.

When Brown returned to work, she went to night class at Stevenson College to take her Highers (Scotland’s university entrance qualifications). The experience convinced her to enter higher education and, aged 34, she enrolled at Edinburgh University to study politics and economics. It was a daunting experience. She felt ‘old and out of her depth’. After her first day, Brown told her husband she wasn’t going back again. However, she stuck at it, supported by sympathetic staff used to working with mature students, and, in 1983, graduated with a first-class degree and winning the DP Heatley Prize – awarded to the top honours graduate of the year – in the process. She continued with her studies, undertaking a PhD at Edinburgh while also working full-time at the University of Stirling and then the University of Edinburgh. She gained her doctorate in 1990. Her research, which was funded by ACAS, focused on industrial relations.

Brown held a series of temporary lecturing posts at Edinburgh University before securing a permanent job in the politics department in which she had taken her first degree. A series of rapid promotions followed, with Brown becoming a senior lecturer and a professor before appointments as, first, head of the department, and then as head of faculty. Much of her research focused on improving equalities policies and addressing the under-representation of women in decision-making roles, in work and in public life, including through the Gender Audit for Scotland, which she and her colleagues developed. In 1998, Brown was appointed Co-director of the university’s Institute of Governance and, in 1999, she became Edinburgh’s first female vice-principal – less than 10 years after graduating with a PhD. Through her leadership roles in the university, she strove to create a ‘culture of equality’ at every level of institutional life, among both staff and students. Universities, she argued, should be about the production of ‘useful knowledge’, providing open and inclusive spaces in which to engage with politics and society.

External recognition followed her appointment and Brown began to take an active role in public life, for example through her involvement in the Nolan Committee into Standards in Public Life, which identified seven key principles of conduct for holders of public offices. She was also invited by Donald Dewar, the first holder of the office of First Minister in Scotland, to be a member of the consultative steering group responsible for designing procedures for the new Scottish Parliament (for which she campaigned). In 2002, she was appointed to the newly created role of Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, gaining ‘a unique insight into all areas of public life’ and having an opportunity to improve the delivery of public services. She held the post until her retirement from full-time employment in 2009. Nevertheless, she continued to contribute to public life in Scotland and the UK. She served as General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 2011 to 2013, and as Chair of the Scottish Funding Council from 2013 to 2017. In both cases, she was the first woman to hold the position.

Unsurprisingly for someone whose career has broken so much ground for women, Brown has been and remains a passionate advocate of social justice and equality of opportunity. Throughout her career, she has striven to promote gender equality and widen participation in education, as well as in politics and public life. She has also taken an active role in high-profile campaigns to support the equal representation of women and was a founder member of Engender, a women’s campaign organisation. Her energy and commitment to achieving equality have been remarkable. Her contribution was recognised with a CBE in 2010. She has also received numerous honorary degrees and fellowships, and, in 2017, the Herald Higher Education Lifetime Achievement Award followed by the Scottish Public Services Lifetime Achievement Award later that year. In a speech to graduates at Edinburgh College shortly after receiving the Herald award, Brown highlighted the importance of hard work, resilience, adaptability, mutual respect and encouragement and support of others – all fitting descriptions of her own career.


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