Alan Cairns studied political science at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1953 with a gold medal, where he also earned his MA. He took his Doctor of Philosophy (D.Phil) at Oxford University, writing a thesis on British reactions to Central African society 1840-1890, later published as Prelude to Imperialism (1965).
He taught at the University of British Columbia (UBC) from 1960 to 1995, focussing his research interests on Canadian politics, particularly federalism, electoral and party systems, judicial review, and the constitutional issues that emerged with the threat to Canada’s survival posed by Quebec nationalism. His major articles are reprinted in three volumes: Constitution, Government and Society in Canada (1988), Disruptions (1991), and Reconfigurations (1995), all edited by Douglas Williams. During his tenure at UBC he took three years off to teach at Memorial University, Harvard University, and the University of Edinburgh.