Last Oxford vote on admitting female students

Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent

image captionThis will be the last stage in ending single-sex institutions at Oxford University

On Thursday afternoon a vote in Oxford University will mark the symbolic last step in a journey that began in 1879.

St Benet's Hall is set to become the last academic institution in Oxford University to change from single-sex to co-educational, when it is expected to formally decide to admit female undergraduate students.

It comes 136 years after the first women's colleges were opened at the university - and 95 years after women were able to become full members of the university.

And step by step, since the 1970s, previously all-male colleges have been moving towards admitting women. It's also almost a decade since the last all-women's college admitted male students.

The vote by trustees at St Benet's comes a week after another milestone, with the nomination of Louise Richardson as Oxford University's first female vice chancellor.

Prof Richardson will be the 272nd holder of a title which stretches back to Elyas de Daneis in 1230. And every one of the previous 271 incumbents were men.

St Benet's is one of Oxford's "private permanent halls", which tend to be smaller, specialist institutions. It has links to the Catholic Benedictine religious order, but admits students of all faiths and none.

'Self evident'

Werner Jeanrond, the master, is very keen to get on with admitting women. The barrier has been practical rather than principle, he says - about finding extra space for accommodation.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionOxford Union in 1938: Women were not allowed to join in debates but were confined to watch from a gallery

Now a suitable building has been found and St Benet's is anticipating that it will take the first applications from female undergraduates from this autumn.

Prof Jeanrond says it is "self evident" that the hall should admit both women and men.

"Some people would love Oxford to be a museum - but I don't.

"It depends on how you view tradition. Is it something that you contribute to or something that is an exhibit in a museum?" he said.

It could be a complete change for the intake. Prof Jeanrond says that if the strongest applications come from women, then it would become a college where most or even all the students were female.

Missing out on top jobs

Because across higher education female students are now in a substantial majority, Oxford remains something of an anomaly, consistently admitting more men than women at undergraduate and graduate level. It also has more male than female academic and research staff.

image captionWerner Jeanrond wants St Benet's to admit female undergraduates as soon as possible

But this goes against the rise and rise of women getting places in most UK universities - so much so that there has been talk of male applicants being treated as a "disadvantaged" group.

Among those entering UK universities last year, there were 57,800 more women than men. It's a gap that keeps on growing and reflects that girls are outperforming boys at school exams.

It wasn't always this way. Until the early 1990s, all the talk about gender gaps would have been about women catching up with men. For centuries, academia had been a male bastion.

But about 20 years ago, women overtook men in going to university and the gap has only grown wider.

Despite this now well-established trend, and the appointment of Prof Richardson to run Oxford, there are still relatively few women running universities.

Among the top 200 world institutions in the Times Higher's rankings, about six out of seven have a male leader.

This could reflect the male-dominated composition of previous generations of academics. But there have been warnings that women are still under-represented in senior academic posts - with men accounting for about three-quarters of professors in UK universities.

Women-only colleges

The vote at St Benet's is set to end single-sex education at Oxford.

But the question of gender segregation remains open elsewhere.

In the US there is a strong tradition of elite, women-only colleges. Hillary Clinton might aim to be the first woman US president, but she also defends the "special" status of the women-only Wellesley College that she attended.

image copyrightPA
image captionLouise Richardson will become Oxford's first female vice chancellor

The college argues that its all-women status isn't a restriction but a way of empowering its students and preparing them for leadership.

Hillary Clinton says she complained at the time about the lack of male company, but looking back it gave young women a chance to escape having to "get dressed up every day" for boys.

"It was an opportunity for the women to run everything," she has said.

Prof Jeanrond, who has experience of universities in Germany, Ireland and Sweden, as well as the UK, says there is "enormous pressure" on young female students to be all things to all people.

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image captionOxford in the 1930s: Women had only been full members of the university since 1920

"They have to be academically top, socially top, physically top, they are expected to satisfy every real or perceived need of society."

Mixed models

The idea of single sex education might be disappearing in higher education in the UK, but it's showing no signs of disappearing at school level. Many of the schools at the top of exam league tables will be single sex.

But there are experiments with trying to combine both single-sex and co-education systems.

A number of independent schools have adopted a so-called "diamond" arrangement, in which girls and boys learn together when they are younger, are taught separately in the middle secondary years and are then taught together again in sixth form. Or in some cases they are taught separately for some subjects.

Tricia Kelleher, principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation school in Cambridge, said such a mixed model offers "the best of both worlds - free from the distractions of a mixed classroom but with the social and wider benefits of a mixed school".

But many of the debates about single-sex education are about politics and tradition, rather than about what works.

"Tradition can be shockingly ambiguous," says Prof Jeanrond. "Tradition is something you have to wrestle with... and if people claim to own it, beware."