Women-only Cambridge college to admit men from 2021

Lucy Cavendish College to go co-educational and abolish its minimum entry age of 21

March 12, 2019

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.”


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Reader's comments (4)

What patronising guff from Madeleine Atkins. Former students are furious and upset because they see the death of one of the last remaining protected spaces for women, not because they have nostalgic memories of midnight feasts in the mid-70s. Other colleges can address other forms of inequality in access. Lucy was the only place that could address the particular needs of mature women returning to study. Now, it's nothing. She has destroyed something precious and irreplaceable.
Women: we want half of everything that men have. Also women: We don't want to share half of what we have with men.
I agree completely with the posters above. I am a male Cambridge alumnus but think it is very sad that something special is being lost there now.
In times of pussy-grabbing politicians, the persistent gender pay gap, and the #metoo movement, it is a questionable choice to take away safe spaces which women have long fought for. And yet, Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge, the last mature women's college in the UK, wants to do exactly that. Without holding an actual conversation with alumnae and students, the college decided to open up for the admission of men in 2012, as well as lowering admissions age to the usual 18 years of age. The college justifies this move by saying its mission of providing access to under-represented groups such as women and mature students has been accomplished, effectively abolishing itself. This flies in the face of the experience of higher education (and life) of most alumnae, as well as mere statistics which prove the lack of women in top-level jobs, including academia. After the introduction of tripled student fees in 2010, the college showed no radical action to assist students meet the new challenges, making a mockery of its current claim to widen access to under-privileged groups regardless of gender. We are beyond belief shocked and grieved. Please help us be heard!

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