Mary Beard’s retirement gift to diversify ‘very white’ Classics

Cambridge scholar says subject is not just for ‘posh people who’ve done Latin for ages’

May 14, 2021
Classicist Mary Beard has donated £80,000 to fund places for under-represented students at University of Cambridge
Classicist Mary Beard’s gift of £80,000 will support two minority ethnic students at the University of Cambridge

Classicist Mary Beard has pledged a “retirement gift” to fund two students from under-represented groups to study the subject at the University of Cambridge to help change the make-up of her “very white” department.

The historian’s £80,000 gift will help fund the living costs of two students from a minority ethnic group from the start of the next academic year, including accommodation during their degree.

Professor Beard, who is retiring in 2022 after almost 40 years teaching at Cambridge, said she wanted the funding – which will be know as the Joyce Reynolds Award after one of her own tutors – to be “payback” for all the opportunities that Classics had given her.

She added that its focus on ethnic minority students reflected efforts Cambridge was already making to attract Classics applicants from under-represented backgrounds, for instance, by offering a four-year course for those with little prior knowledge of Latin or Greek.

“I have no illusion that giving a couple of scholarships is the solution, but it’s a way of showing we’re serious about equality of opportunity,” Professor Beard said.

“We’ve done a lot of work in saying that you don’t have to have Latin and Greek before you come, you can learn it here, that this isn’t just for posh people who’ve done Latin for ages. But you still walk around the faculty and it looks – although not entirely – very white.”

Professor Beard also insisted that Classics was a subject that prepared students for work just as well as more vocational subjects.

“The idea that the only way of being certain of getting a good job is to take a professional, vocational qualification is just untrue,” she said.

“Classics hasn’t made me rich, but I’ve written popular books and I’ve made television programmes and it’s brought me more than I expected or hoped. And I think it’s payback time.”

Latest data available show about a quarter of students who accepted a place on Cambridge’s three-year Classics course came from state schools, and 14 per cent were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. For the four-year course, 83 per cent of accepted students were from state schools and 22 per cent were from BAME backgrounds.

Across all UK universities, almost nine out of 10 of all those studying Classics were white in 2019-20, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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