One of the University of Cambridge’s three remaining women-only colleges will admit men from October 2021, as part of a drive to widen access to the exclusive institution.
Lucy Cavendish College will also abolish its minimum entry age, which currently stands at 21, said Dame Madeleine Atkins, its president.
“We want to make more places available in Cambridge to excellent students from more underrepresented groups,” Dame Madeleine told Times Higher Education. “Supporting underrepresented groups has always been in the college’s ethos – previously we were constrained to just one group that are underrepresented. We’re simply adding more groups to what we’ve always done.”
Dame Madeleine, who joined Lucy Cavendish in October 2018 after serving as chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the move would “substantially” increase the number of students at the college. It is primarily a postgraduate institution at the moment, but Dame Madeleine said it would seek to boost both undergraduate and graduate numbers.
The move may prove controversial with alumnae and proponents of women’s education. The college was founded in 1965 by female Cambridge academics who were frustrated by the limited opportunities for women at the institution, and was named after Lucy Cavendish (1841-1925), a pioneer of women’s education.
Before implementing the changes, which were approved by the college’s governing body on 6 March, the college consulted 2,600 alumnae, students and others on the changes. Dame Madeleine said that overall the response was supportive of the changes “provided we kept our ethos of giving opportunity to underrepresented groups”.
“There were, of course, some who felt we should stay women only and we do understand their concerns,” she said. However, Dame Madeleine said the college had worked to explain the changing mission of the university as well as the changing make-up of the college, which has a much lower average student age than when it was first set up. “It’s a very different college in some ways from the one they remembered,” she said.
The change was about “realising that mature women, while still a much underrepresented group, are by no means the only underrepresented group”, Dame Madeleine said.
In December, it was revealed that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge admit more students from just eight elite schools than from three-quarters of all other schools and colleges put together.
Meanwhile, female school-leavers in the UK are now 36.7 per cent more likely to enter higher education than men, a gap that has widened by five percentage points in five years.
The move will leave two Cambridge colleges – Murray Edwards College and Newnham College – as the UK’s only women-only colleges. Girton College, Cambridge went co-educational in 1976, while all five of Oxford’s formerly women-only colleges now admit men.
“There is a certainly an argument we heard that said [that] women graduate and have professional lives in mixed settings and therefore, it’s very important that they are educated here in a co-educational spaces,” Dame Madeleine said. “But one needs to remember, of course, that all teaching at Cambridge is already in mixed groups…Our priority is to provide more places for excellent students from underrepresented groups – that’s in our DNA.”