All-female college to vote on male students

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The Independent Online

The last bastion of all-female education at Oxford University once again finds that men are preparing to storm its gates.

St Hilda's College - the Alma Mater of the former Conservative education secretary Gilliam Shepherd, the scientist and broadcaster Susan Greenfield and the Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer - will decide this week on whether male students and dons should be admitted. The fate of the 110-year-old college lies in the hands of the 31 fellows who will vote on Wednesday afternoon.

The ballot comes just eight months after the last vote on the issue, which resulted in the college retaining its single sex status by just one vote.

Fellows at St Hilda's need a two-thirds majority to trigger the change to admit men. In March, the proposal was supported by 20 of the 31 female fellows on the governing body while 11 voted to keep the status quo.

But observers believe that, this time, the proponents of change could be successful.

The plan to allow male students and fellows to join St Hilda's has faced strong opposition from the college's undergraduates - known as Hildabeasts - who have launched a campaign and staged protests against it.

St Hilda's has been the university's only female-only college since Somerville went mixed in 1994. Cambridge has three all-female colleges and Durham one.

They say altering the college's unique status will disadvantage female students. Opponents also claim changing St Hilda's status would damage opportunities for women across the university.

Just 19.3 per cent of Oxford's fellowship is female and without St Hilda's the figure drops to 17.2 per cent.

A poll of 311 of the college's 420 undergraduates earlier this year found 57 per cent in favour of keeping the college single-sex and 43 per cent against.

But that was a marked decline from the position in 1997, when a referendum found that 78 per cent of students were opposed to men being admitted.

And with the admittance of a new generation of school-leavers, anecdotal evidence collected by an Oxford student newspaper suggests the balance of opinion may be beginning to tip the other way.

Helena Puig Larrauri, the president of the Oxford University Student Union who graduated from St Hilda's this summer, argued the college's status provided a unique opportunity for female students to live and work in a community of women at Oxford.

"I absolutely loved my time at St Hilda's and would be disappointed if they voted to change its women-only status," she said.

The repeated ballots were bad for college morale, she argued. "It is damaging to be having another vote so soon after the last one. It is damaging to be constantly questioning something that is so intrinsic to the college's life.

"I have no idea if they are more likely to vote to admit men this time. The make-up of the governing body has changed and I imagine that they have been putting enormous pressure on anyone who voted 'no' last time to change their minds."

Catherine Wallis, the university's students' union women's officer, argued that the existence of an all-women's college gave female students more choice.

"Many women prefer a mixed environment, others feel more empowered in an all-female space. So that everyone can have the chance to choose the environment in which they'll flourish, it's essential to keep all-women colleges," she said.

But proponents of change argue that, in recent years, St Hilda's has found it more difficult to attract students and recruit fellows. St Hilda's is regularly found near the bottom of the Norrington Table, the university's informal academic rankings.