Looking back at her four-year tenure as chair of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), Professor Alice Brown says she is “very proud of what has been achieved”, especially at a time of financial pressures.
“The college merger and regionalisation programme has been completed, world-leading new facilities in both sectors [further and higher education] have been opened; the high standing of Scottish universities on the world stage has developed together with the strong performance of Scottish research; our universities and colleges are making a significant contribution to innovation – and there have been major improvements in how colleges and universities demonstrate their value through the outcome-agreement process,” she tells Tes Scotland, only weeks after stepping down from her post.
“And, most importantly, student satisfaction, retention and employment opportunities have been enhanced,” she adds. “We have focused on the contribution that colleges and universities make to the Scottish economy at the same time as developing our education system in a way that improves access and reduces inequality.”
Access and equality are matters close to Brown’s heart, she explains, after she helped to develop the first access course between the University of Edinburgh and what was then Stevenson College. Also, she herself was an adult returner to education, completing her Highers through night classes at the college, before taking a degree in economics and politics at the University of Edinburgh.
‘I feel very privileged’
Brown later became co-director of the Institute of Governance at the University of Edinburgh – and the institution’s first female vice-principal. Between 2002 and 2009, she was Scottish Public Services Ombudsman – the first holder of that post.
She was appointed chair of the SFC in 2013. “Looking back over the past four years, I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to lead the organisation and to work with so many talented, inspirational and committed people in the SFC and in our colleges and universities,” she says. “It was a tremendous opportunity, too, after some time away from education, for me to return to a sector and issues that are close to my heart and my passion for education and research.”
It has not all been plain sailing, however – during her time as chair, the institution went through the government’s Enterprise and Skills Review, while at the same time experiencing budgetary pressures.
“There can often be frustrations at the pace of change,” says Brown. “For example, we know that life chances and potential learning difficulties start early in life and that it takes time to turn around educational disadvantage. As a result, progress on widening access has not been as fast as I would have liked and there is always more that can be done to effect real change.
“It is over 30 years since I initiated and helped to develop the first access course between the University of Edinburgh and the former Stevenson College, but many of the issues and challenges we faced then remain the same today.
“It is not enough to increase the numbers of people from non-traditional backgrounds accessing further and higher education – many require extra support in pursuing their studies to successful completion.”
However, she says that it is encouraging to see the increasing proportion of students entering colleges and universities from the most deprived areas in Scotland. “I am pleased, too, to see the rebalancing of the focus on young people with others who may be returning to education later in life or seeking further training in new skills.”
Overall, the positives outweigh the negatives, she concludes. “I have learned a lot in carrying out the role of chair and have enjoyed being at the centre of many exciting initiatives. To take just one example, I am proud of SFC’s work on the Gender Action Plan and the way it was developed and is being implemented. It is a prime illustration of the benefits of working with the college and university sectors and other partners in planning a joint initiative.”
She adds: “Of course, many of these [gender-biased education] choices are determined very early in life and that is why the plan involves working directly with schools to help tackle the issues at an early stage. Change will not happen overnight but it is vital to have a coordinated and whole-system approach supported by the commitment of the different partners involved.”
So what next for Brown? “Having left school at 15 with no career plans, I have been extremely fortunate in the way my career has developed and I have been honoured to hold a number of fascinating posts. At this stage in my life, I am not going to start planning now. Instead I want time to reflect and enjoy spending more time with my family and friends.”
She is a prime example of lifelong learning in action, and has no intention of putting her feet up – quite the opposite. “I will also pursue one of the things I didn’t do when I was 15,” she explains. “At that time I held a scholarship at the Royal Ballet School in London, but did not have the confidence to go south and develop a ballet career. On the basis that it is never too late, I have enrolled in a ‘vintage’ ballet class that I am thoroughly enjoying.
“And I also want to continue to learn new things and will be looking at courses on offer in my local college and universities – it would seem that I still have the learning bug.”