Professor Alice Brown CBE is highly respected for her contribution to education and social justice. She was the first Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, a post she held until 2009, and has published widely on economic and labour market policy; equal opportunities; women and politics, Scottish politics, and constitutional change. In recognition of her work in public services, Professor Brown was recently awarded a CBE.
There tends to be a feeling in society at the moment that youngsters need to have a clear plan for their futures even before they take their standard grades or GCSEs. Qualifications should then be amassed and the first foot on the career ladder taken in ones very early twenties. This is how we are told things must be to reach the top in business, academia and public life. Life is not always that straightforward and Professor Brown followed a different path, one which shows that there are many different roads that can lead to success.
I met Alice in her home town of Edinburgh and first of all asked how her career had started.
“I didn’t have a career plan. I often think that people can be restricted by their own background and had I known then what I know now then there is much more that I would like to have done.”
“My parents had small dairies and I helped to deliver the milk. It was a seven days a week business and after a time my father started a driving school, so you could say I was familiar with enterprise as I was growing up. I went to a selective secondary school and mixed with people from all kinds of backgrounds. A combination of wanting my own independence and the thought that girls shouldn’t be concerned with further education but get a proper job led to me leaving, aged 15, with just my O grades.”
“I took a job in an office as cover for a woman who was on holiday, but when she failed to return I took her position full-time. I remember that even then, as a very young girl, I was concerned with fairness and not intimidated by talking to my bosses so I negotiated a salary increase before taking the full-time position. After a while the firm was taken over and I was moved to the typing pool, a role that I really didn’t enjoy. Also, the new company had a rigid approach to gender, with women always placed in supporter roles. They even had a nylon chin to below the knee uniform that we had to wear ‘so as not to distract the men’ ! In 1964 I got engaged and, since it was the policy of the firm not to employ married women, I left.”
“I joined a firm of surveyors. The company was expanding and they treated me as an equal so it was a great time to be with them and to learn about the business. I couldn’t progress further without qualifications and, since my husband had at that time gone back to university, it wasn’t possible for me to take on study myself. So I spent 7 years working mainly from home bringing up my 2 children and supporting my husband with his degree. I did odd jobs and bits and pieces just to keep the home going.”
“When I returned to work it was with the same company and I went to night school to take my highers. I did well and decided that I would go to university. I was 34 years old at that point and I felt old and out of my depth at different stages but the degree really opened my eyes and I enjoyed learning and reading like never before. I graduated with a double first in Economics and Politics from Edinburgh University at the age of 37 and thought I would stay on and take a Ph.D. “
“My PhD. was funded by ACAS and for the first time I started to travel beyond Scotland. It was at the time of the miners strike and I researched the politics of industrial relations so it was a very interesting time. I took a full time job at Stirling University while studying part-time for the PhD. I moved on to Edinburgh University, still on short-term research contracts, until a permanent job came up in the Politics Department and from then things started to really take off. I quickly became Head of Department then Head of Faculty and later the first female Vice Principal. I started to get lots of external recognition, including being part of the Nolan Committee into Standards in Public Life.”
“In 2002 I took the newly created role of Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. There were huge challenges around the role but great rewards. For example, I’m proud that we were able to persuade parliament to change their minds on a number of issues around the delivery of public services. Often people in challenging situations, who feel that they have been disadvantaged by failures in public service, are not looking for compensation but are looking for answers and for improvements to be made to services for future users. As in business, public services can look at complaints as a way of making improvements and positive changes to the system.”
“I did the job for 7 years, through to 2009, when I decided that it was time for someone else to take up that particular challenge and for me to get my life back. I am very fortunate in that I am now able to try many new experiences, to learn new and different things and concentrate on those areas in my life that I really enjoy.”
My thanks go to Alice for taking the time to chat with me and to share her inspirational story
Professor Alice Brown, CBE, FRSE, FRSA, AcSS, Cipfa (Hon)
After leaving school at the age of 15, Alice Brown worked in the private sector, first in the insurance industry and then for a leading firm of chartered surveyors in Edinburgh. She left work to have her children and later returned to full-time study at the University of Edinburgh in her 30’s. She obtained a First Class Honours degree in Economics and Politics from the University in 1983 and won the DP Heatley Prize for the Top Honours Graduate of the year. She went on to study for her PhD on the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). Her first academic job was teaching Economics at the University of Stirling in 1984. One year later she returned to teach Economics, and later Politics, at the University of Edinburgh.
Alice gained rapid promotion at the University of Edinburgh, first as a Senior Lecturer (1992), then as Head of the Department of Politics (1995) followed by appointment as Head of a Planning Unit (1996). She received a Personal Chair in 1997 and was also appointed as the Co-Director of the University’s Institute of Governance (1998) before being appointed as a Vice-Principal (1999).
Alice gained extensive research experience during her academic career and through her appointment on the Economic and Social Research Council. She has published widely on economic and labour market policy, equal opportunities, women and politics, Scottish politics and constitutional change. More recently she has published on the topics of Ombudsmen and administrative justice. She has wide editorial and media experience related to her research interests.
Throughout her career Alice has played an active role in public life in Scotland and the UK. She was a member of the Consultative Steering Group that drew up the procedures for the Scottish Parliament. She was also responsible for designing mechanisms to promote the equal representation of women in the Parliament and was a founder member of the women’s organisation Engender. Alice has served on a wide range of public bodies and organisations, including:
- Committee on Standards in Public Life (Nolan Committee)
- Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (and Chair of their Mergers Committee)
- Economic and Social Research Council
- British and Irish Ombudsman Association
- Community Planning Taskforce in Scotland (Chair)
- Equal Opportunities Commission in Scotland
- Commission for Racial Equality in Scotland
- Hansard Society Scotland
- British Council (Scotland Committee)
- Centre for Scottish Public Policy
- Scottish Low Pay Unit
Alice was appointed as the first Scottish Public Services Ombudsman in 2002 (Crown appointment), a post she held until her retirement in 2009.
Alice ’s contribution was recognised in the Queen’s Honours list 2009 when she was awarded a CBE and through the award of the title of Emeritus Professor at the University of Edinburgh (2008). She also received Honorary Degrees from the University of Edinburgh (2010), Edinburgh Napier University (2009) and the University of Stirling (2004); and a Special Recognition Award from the Political Studies Association (2009). Alice has also been appointed as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (FRSE), an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS), an Honorary Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance (Cipfa) and Accountancy, and as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA).
Alice is currently a Sunningdale Fellow (appointed by the UK Cabinet Secretary), a member of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (appointed by UK Secretary of State), a Trustee of the David Hume Institute, Chair of the Lay Advisory Group of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and Adviser to Hays in Scotland.
Alice is married to Alan Brown and they have two grown-up daughters – Julie and Jill Brown.