Helping others to cross the square

September 27, 2002

From next month, Alice Brown will take a leave of absence from her post as a vice-principal of Edinburgh University to become Scotland's first public-sector ombudsman.

Her present position is a world away from her early life. As a child, she lived and went to school near Edinburgh University. "I thought you couldn't cross George Square because that was university territory. We used to walk round it, although it would have been quicker to go across. It might as well have been on Mars."

Although she was dux of her primary school, she left secondary school at 15 after approaching a small insurance firm that hired her as a secretary for £4 a week.

"I just came home and told mum and dad I'd got a job. They were pleased I'd got an office job. No one who I knew had gone to university."

Professor Brown does not have the academic background many would expect of an Edinburgh vice-principal. But her experience as a mature entrant made her a champion of wider access.

The role of ombudsman - who will look at complaints about bodies and services including the Scottish Parliament, local government, health, mental welfare and housing - is a logical step for the politics professor who was a force in establishing the Scottish Parliament. She served on the consultative steering group that helped draft its procedures and fought to ensure more access for women to politics.

"I always felt that my research should help inform rather than be purely about abstract debate. It's about applying your knowledge and trying to bridge the gap between academics and life outside, so that we as universities are a resource to Scotland."

Professor Brown was in her 30s when she went to university. She stopped work in her early 20s to start a family, then returned part time to a firm of surveyors who suggested that she train as a surveyor. She began juggling work and family duties with Highers evening classes at Stevenson College. It was an exhausting regime, but she did so well that her tutors urged her to consider university.

The concept was becoming less intimidating: her husband had gone to Edinburgh University in his 20s and she had typed his essays. "Alan was the clever one, and it was me helping him in his career. But then I started to type people's theses, and I thought this is really interesting."

As her husband won a further education post, she signed up for business studies at Edinburgh. Despite winning prizes in her first year, she found it unchallenging, but under the broad-based Scottish degree system, she was also studying politics and economics, which fascinated her.

"I was learning things that allowed me to put words to things I felt, reading books that opened doors to different ways of seeing the world. But it was tough. They were hard times, although we both benefited from mature-student grants. It just wouldn't have been possible without that kind of support. We had no (financial) backing from our families. Alan had to work on building sites during the summer, and I had to work in offices."

She graduated in 1983, aged 37, with a first-class joint-honours degree in economics and politics. This led to a PhD researching arbitration with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service at the time of the miners' strike and major rail disputes, a solid grounding for her new ombudsman's post.

She then became a lecturer, with one of her earliest jobs at Edinburgh combining politics and education. She worked to encourage adults back to study, teaching in evenings and at weekends, and organising debates on topical issues such as the poll tax and prison reform. She was involved in pioneering mature student access courses "long before it was fashionable", taught jointly by the university and Stevenson.

"Stevenson staff were invaluable in bridging the gap, saying: 'This might not be beyond you, how will you know unless you try?' Passion for access, for me, comes because people's life chances shouldn't be determined by their postcode. Watching people's horizons open is the most rewarding thing in the world."

Her work as vice-principal included raising funds for a £20 million scholarship scheme. But while her background means she can empathise with non-traditional entrants, she resists being seen as a role model. She believes that in celebrating individual women's achievements, there is a danger of forgetting the wider untapped ability and unrealised potential of many others.

Professor Brown became head of department in 1995 and was promoted to a personal chair in 1997. She says she never experienced direct discrimination, but sees it elsewhere. Her research on women returners, for example, shows they do better on average than the men.

"But as soon as they re-entered the labour market, they were disadvantaged again because employers were more likely to take men even though the women had better qualifications.

"I'm always interested in the evidence, and to use the evidence to support the case for change," she said.

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