Alice Brown

Alice Brown is an Emeritus Professor of Politics, and formerly Vice Principal, at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently Chair of the Sottish Funding Council.

Alice Brown
We spoke to Alice in December 2015 about her experiences at the University, as both a student and an academic.


I was a student at the University first, and I had a rather unusual career because I returned to study in my mid-30s, for an Economics and Politics degree. I started in 1979 and obtained my first degree in 1983. I went on to study for a PhD, and worked for a year at the University of Stirling.

In 1984/85, I came back to work at the University. Initially, I worked in the Economics Department (it was a temporary job), working up to a full-time, permanent post in the Department of Politics, where I had been a student. I was promoted to Senior Lecturer and then Professor, and was later appointed as a Vice-Principal for the University, by the then Principal, Stewart Sutherland. I also Co-Directed the University’s Institute of Governance with my colleague Professor David McCrone.

I left the University in 2002 to take up the position as the first Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. I held this post for seven years until my retirement from full-time employment in 2009.

Since then I have been involved with the University in different ways: initially in my role as General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and now as Chair of the Scottish Funding Council, which distributes funding to universities and colleges.

Alice’s profile on the Scottish Funding Council website

The increasing visibility of women at the University

I think when I began working at the University only about 6% of Professors were women. It’s still not 50/50, far from it, but it’s improved substantially. Much has been done to raise awareness of the under-representation of women academics in senior roles and to address the issue. I was involved, with other female colleagues at the University in carrying out research on equalities policy and the under-representation of women in decision-making roles in the labour market and in public office. For example, we produced something called the Gender Audit for Scotland where, on an annual basis, we highlighted the position of women in education and other key sectors, including law, business and politics, and tried to use the evidence as a way of illustrating the small percentage of women in certain key roles—to encourage policies to do something about it.

Athena SWAN

The University has been active in addressing the issue, particularly in relation to the Athena SWAN initiative. Athena SWAN was initially targeted at the STEM subjects where there is a particular problem in attracting and retaining women in specific fields, such as Engineering, Maths and Computer Science, but its extension to other subject areas in the Arts and Social Sciences is very important as well. There are, of course, some areas where there is an under-representation of men, for example in Nursing, Social Studies and Languages. Ideally it would be good to see a situation where the gendered nature of subject and career choices is reduced so that, in making such choices, both young women and men do so on the basis of whether or not they have a genuine interest and capability in a particular area, rather than as a result of gender stereotyping.

Athena SWAN initiative

Combining studies with parenthood

The first day I came to University, I came home and told to my husband that I wasn’t going back again because I felt very old, almost old enough to be the mother of first-year students. While other students were heading off to the pub or off for a coffee after their lectures, I was rushing home to cook supper and do homework with the children.

However, I soon found that, particularly in the Department of Politics, the academic staff had experience of teaching more mature students, in part because of their relationship with Newbattle Abbey College. The students from the College had a background in the Trade Union Movement and were supported to return to study. As a result, staff were more attuned to having older students in the Department, so I certainly found a home in there and, as indicated earlier, I later became a member of staff and then Head of the Department. I can say that returning to study at the University literally transformed my life.

Newbattle Abbey College

Alice writes more about her experience in the Department of Politics 50th anniversary handbook.

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While other students were heading off to the pub or off for a coffee after their lectures, I was rushing home to cook supper and do homework with the children.

A culture of equality

Creating a culture of equality involves every aspect of University life

Creating a culture of equality involves every aspect of University life and it is not just about academics. The University depends on all sorts of people working in different roles and levels within the University. It is essential, therefore, to raise awareness and promote equality so that all staff and students feel valued and are confident that the institution takes the issue of equality seriously and has policies, procedures and practices that are designed to remove both direct and indirect discrimination.

The University’s success depends on tapping and developing all the talents of women as well as men.

Find out more about Alice

Interview with Alice in The3rdi magazine

Alice participated in the debate 'What Future for Scotland?' in celebration of the Politics and International Relations department 50th Anniversary.

50th Anniversary feature