I read somewhere that if we think of human evolution as covering a 24-hour period, then settled agriculture occurred at 23.58pm - two minutes ago. On that timescale, university education for women has been around for only a couple of seconds. Yet in that amazingly brief period, it has been transformed so totally that the whole feel and timbre of its early days are increasingly hard to discern. The traces must be there yet when you read about the pioneering women's colleges of the late 19th century, you really do feel that "the past is a foreign country". They did things differently there.
I have just read an engrossing new book by Gillian Sutherland on the Clough family, who provided two principals of Newnham College, Cambridge. Newnham, founded in the early 1870s, was one of the first institutions to offer higher education to women. Annie Clough, its first principal, was born in 1820. She was educated entirely at home, like so many upper and upper-middle class girls of her time, and, obviously enough, had not the faintest prospect of university study. By contrast, her niece, Thena, the fourth principal, attended both school and university - and died in 1960, which on that 24-hour scale barely registers as time past at all.
Yet the Newnham of Thena, let alone of Annie, was tiny. Its 200-odd students were then a substantial proportion of female university students. Today, women make up almost 60 per cent of the British higher education student population, which is close to 2 million. Much of that increase has been recent, and the phenomenon is international. In the past few decades, the whole developed world has moved to the sort of mass-participation system first seen in the US, and, in the process, to one where women are generally in the majority. This is partly, but only partly, because teaching and nursing are now university based. Mostly, it reflects a complete revolution in women's aspirations and opportunities.
This, in turn, rests on a transformation of our class structure. Today, about 10 per cent of jobs are classed as higher managerial and professional, and a further 20 per cent or so as "lower" management and professional. In the 19th century, there were few well-paid jobs for anyone. Educated women, until well into the 20th century, had little alternative to teaching; but men's choices were also very limited. Less than 1 per cent in the mid-1800s could hope to enter the liberal professions. Sutherland's book makes one aware of the close connections among the upper-middle classes of 19th-century Britain. Stracheys, Tennysons and Arnolds populate the pages because they knew, and were often related to, each other, and to the Cloughs - and that, in turn, was because the class they belonged to was so tiny.
The small scale of things had an enormous effect on university life. Today's mass institutions have none of the close personal relationships between faculty and students that characterised the early days of Newnham.
Most students have few "contact hours" - not a phrase that I think either Clough would have warmed to - and even at Oxbridge, tutorial-based teaching is increasingly hard to maintain. My own university, as is common, allocates each student a "personal tutor" as a point of contact for advice, and I do get to know some of mine quite well. But I must confess that many come and go without my ever registering their existence. They don't turn up for the ritual ten minutes at the start of term, and nothing else ever brings them my way.
However, the Cloughs' world seems immeasurably distant for reasons that go well beyond scale. Sutherland's book is titled Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind , and this encapsulates the values that drove and structured these women's lives. This is not to imply that all female educational pioneers were committed Christians. On the contrary, Thena was an unblinking atheist from an early age. But the idea that one's life should be based on duty and obligation to one's fellows, and the constant attempt to be "good", ran through their lives and their writings as a constant thread.
They shared this with their contemporaries in other countries. For example, France, was at the same time establishing its Ecole Normale Supérieure. This Grande Ecole opened the road for "Madame le Professeur" to staff the new lycées. It demanded the highest academic standards of its graduates, but also saw teaching as a vocation that was as much about values, duty and the "care of souls" as about the imparting of secular knowledge. Not quite paradise lost perhaps, but certainly a long way from today's world of Quality Assessment Agency visits, targets and recruitment fairs. It has not been altogether a journey for the better.
Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King's College London.