St Hilda's edges towards co-ed future

March 7, 2003

The last remaining women's college at Oxford University looks poised to admit men as resistance to change wanes.

Undergraduates at St Hilda's College voted last week to retain the status quo - but with the slimmest majority ever. Students voted 57 to 43 in favour of the college staying single sex. The last vote, in 2000, was 78 to 22 in favour of women-only status.

Opposition among the fellows is thought to be fading as new, younger academics join the college and older fellows see a strong case for change.

St Hilda's governing body is to vote next week on whether to accept male students. It will also decide whether to change the statutes to allow men to take up academic college positions.

The college's principal, Lady Judith English, said that lack of direct applications to the college and financial issues had forced the college's governors to revisit the single-sex policy. She is concerned about university plans to move towards open rather than college-specific admissions. This could include an option for female candidates to exclude St Hilda's from their applications.

"It's a real challenge to interest 17-year-olds in single-sex education," Lady English said. "Are the arguments for staying single sex strong enough to justify all this effort? college has to keep up with the times to equip itself for the future."

Staff recruitment has been difficult and expensive since equal opportunities legislation was revised in 1992. This led Somerville College to decide to mix because Oxford could no longer include single-sex colleges in joint college/ university appointment schemes. St Hilda's has to advertise university positions jointly with a mixed college, and female candidates frequently choose the other college.

St Hilda's has just one university lecturer, but most colleges have about ten. All other academic appointments are funded entirely by the college.

This creates "an expensive burden" and drains funds that Lady English wants to use to alleviate student hardship.

Two-thirds of academic staff at St Hilda's must vote in favour for the governing body to change the statutes. Among fellows, the older and younger academics are believed to favour change; the rest are thought to be strongly against.

Anita Avramides, a philosophy fellow and member of the governing body, said: "We do sometimes find it hard to persuade 17-year-olds to choose a women's college. But once women are in Oxford, many tell us that they wish they were at St Hilda's. In short, women come to appreciate the virtues of an all-women's college."

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