Oxford's last women's college votes to admit men

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The Independent Online

The last bastion of women-only education at Oxford University has voted to admit men, ending nearly 120 years of single-sex education at St Hilda's College.

The college decided yesterday to allow men to join at all levels, opening the door to male undergraduates, graduates, fellows and principals. Male fellows will be able to join the college as soon as the change is legally complete but male undergraduates will not be admitted until a date for the changeover has been agreed with the current students.

St Hilda's has been the only all-female Oxford college since Somerville renounced its single-sex status in 1994. The motion to change to a mixed college, which needed a two-thirds majority of fellows, followed the first-ever vote by students in favour of admitting men in March.

Cambridge still has three single-sex colleges, Newnham, New Hall and Lucy Cavendish.

Lady English, the college's principal, described the change as "an important decision for St Hilda's which opens up new and exciting opportunities".

She said: "We are proud of our heritage as a women's college but plan to build on that with a new focus for the 21st century now that women can go to every college in Oxford. We want to ensure that St Hilda's provides an excellent environment for women, but within a mixed community.

"The ability to consider men as well as women for fellowship appointments will have immediate benefit by allowing us to strengthen our science teaching. However, our commitment to supporting women's careers remains a priority; we want St Hilda's to become a catalyst for the advancement of women across the university as a whole. We are confident that the wider college community is ready for change; discussions with students and alumni have indicated widespread support.''

The issue has provoked heated debate at the college for many years. There had been four previous votes on the issue since 1997. In the last in 2003 there were 19 votes in favour of turning mixed and 11 against with one don flying back from China to vote.

Many students and academics remain passionately opposed to the change, which they claim has been imposed without adequate consultation. Supporters of single-sex education cite the "finals gap" in the number of women achieving first-class degrees plus the lack of women holding senior positions within the university as reasons for St Hilda's to remain single sex.

Last time the issue was debated in 2003, a group of former "Hildabeasts" including the former education secretary Gillian Shephard, the poet Wendy Cope, the scientist Baroness Greenfield and the Liberal Democrat MP Susan Kramer rallied in support of keeping St Hilda's single-sex.

Those in favour of admitting men argue that the college suffers financially and academically by remaining single sex. St Hilda's often ranks near the bottom of the university's academic rankings. Single-sex status affects the teaching as well as St Hilda's admissions, while equal opportunities law means that the college has to fund some staff without university assistance.

Yesterday's result follows a referendum held in March in which 55 per cent of undergraduates agreed that the student body should go mixed while an overwhelming 77 per cent voted in favour of a mixed staff. The U-turn in St Hilda's student policy, came after the governing body published a pamphlet late last year arguing that the college should go mixed within two years.

Ailbhe Menton, the college's JCR president, said in March that the student vote was "significant from an historical viewpoint" but she was not surprised at the outcome.