Q&A with Jackie Ashley

We speak to the next president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, the only women’s university college in Europe for students aged 21 and over

January 8, 2015

Source: Ken McKay/TV/Rex

Later this year Jackie Ashley will become the eighth president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, the only women’s university college in Europe for students aged 21 and over. She has been a political journalist and commentator for ITN, Channel 4 News, the BBC, the New Statesman and The Guardian.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in University College Hospital in 1954. My mother had been brought up in Liverpool and my father in Widnes, a small industrial town outside Liverpool. They met and married at Cambridge and then moved to London.

How has this shaped you?
I was always very aware of the power of education to change lives. My father left school at 14 and worked as a labourer for 12 years before winning a scholarship to Ruskin College Oxford and then to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. That opportunity transformed his life chances.

Presiding over a Cambridge college seems quite a jump from journalism. What drew you to the position?
As a journalist you report and comment but it can be frustrating not being able to really make a difference. As head of Lucy Cavendish I hope to be able to improve and develop some aspects of this excellent college.

Do you have any specific plans for your presidency?
Lots of fundraising ideas, a packed programme of guest speakers, brilliant pastoral care for students and more sport.

Lucy Cavendish is one of three all-female university colleges in the UK. A Times Higher Education contributor once called such colleges a ‘vital haven’. What’s your view on them?
They are indeed a vital haven for some women, particularly those who are studying the more traditionally “male” subjects such as engineering. People from different faiths and religions also value single-sex colleges. But like everything, it’s an issue that is constantly being reviewed and I would be surprised if there were no discussion about it once I join.

The college champions the education of women and you are a campaigner for better rights for women. How close are we to equality?
We are still a long way from equality in terms of the pay gap and also the number of women in top roles, whether that’s in politics, the law, business or academia. Quite often it’s an issue of confidence: women need to know that they are every bit as good as the men.

Is a Cambridge college the best place from which to campaign for equality?
It certainly is, because graduates from Oxbridge still dominate in the professions and in government. Lucy Cavendish takes students from a wide variety of backgrounds, often giving a second chance to those who didn’t go to university at 18.

What has been your trickiest story to report on in your career?
On 11 September 2001 I was presenting the live programme on BBC Two from the TUC conference. As I interviewed TUC grandee John Edmonds ahead of Tony Blair’s speech that afternoon, my husband, Andrew Marr, who was then political editor of the BBC, rushed into the studio and Edmonds was bundled out. A plane had flown into one of the towers at the World Trade Center. I had no idea what was happening but Andrew and I had to continue a live discussion about what could be happening until a much delayed Mr Blair arrived.

You’re known as a commentator on the Labour Party. What policy on higher education fees and funding do you think Labour should take into the election?
I would like to see a pledge that tuition fees won’t be raised beyond £9,000 a year. I also support the recent change to government policy which means that postgraduate students are eligible for loans too.

What keeps you awake at night?
My husband’s snoring, although to be fair it has been alleged that I sometimes snore too.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not making the most of every day when I was younger.

What do you do for fun?
Theatre, opera, dinners with friends and spinning (indoor cycling, which isn’t fun at the time but keeps me fit).

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
Yes, when I had three young children and a full-time job I finally realised you can’t have it all. I went part time.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Chubby, left-wing, committed to journalism and not as studious as I might have been. My essays were always written through the night in the hours before a tutorial.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Women are just as good as men, but having children changes the shape of your career. It doesn’t mean you can’t aim for the top.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
I haven’t started yet but I expect the best things to be the students, fellows and staff at Lucy Cavendish – the college has a lovely informal, inclusive atmosphere. The worst thing, I have been warned, is the weight I will put on with all those dinners.


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