St Hilda's to stay all-women as men voted down again

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The Independent Online

The last all-women college in Oxford university kept its unique status yesterday despite a majority of fellows voting in favour of admitting men.

The ballot showed 19 votes in favour of going mixed, 11 against and two abstentions, almost identical results to the last vote eight months ago and insufficient to change the college's 110-year-old constitution.

A two-thirds majority was needed to allow male undergraduates and staff to join St Hilda's college.

While the college's governing body met to decide the issue, single-sex supporters gathered on the lawn outside wearing lilac ribbons and waving banners pleading: "St Hilda pray for us."

But in the event, the 10,000-mile round trip of Laura Newby from a sabbatical in China to vote for keeping the college all female looked like a wasted journey.

After the vote, Helen McCabe, St Hilda's junior common room president who campaigned for the status quo, said she hoped the college could now return to serving its present day undergraduates. "We would like them to concentrate on making St Hilda's a really great place for girls to come to rather than a college that's unsure of its future."

Until controversy came to call St Hilda's was a relatively anonymous place compared to its illustrious neighbours. Situated at the end of a cul-de-sac its unremarkably buildings are a substantial hike from Oxford's tourist trail. The college languishes near the bottom of the Norrington table of Oxford colleges and is presently 26th out of 33 in terms of performance.

Alumni include Gillian Shephard, the former education secretary, Zeinab Badawi, the newsreader and Susan Greenfield, the scientist .

"Keeping it female preserves and promotes women in education in Oxford,'' Ms McCabe said.

A women-only college was important for cultural and religious reasons she said, and had made it the only college able to employ two female visiting professors from Kabul University recently.

The principal, Lady Judith English, is thought to have backed the admission of men in an attempt to attract more students and improve college finances.

But 67 per cent of students at the college - named after a seventh century educator - were in favour of remaining a single-sex institution.

Annabel Clark, a third-year English student, said the dispute had "divided the college and divided friendships."

"I think there has to be a place for people who want to come to Oxford university and be in a single-sex environment,'' she said. "But I don't like the way it has been handled."

Single-sex supporters point to what has happened at Somerville college, which went co-educational in 1994 and now has a predominately male student body.

Catherine Wallis, women's officer at Oxford university students' union, said it would be "an awful shame'' to lose single-sex status.

"I don't think the financial argument is particularly valid. It would lose a lot of endowments based on the college being single sex if it did go mixed. At the moment it's a great selling point as the only women's college in Oxford.''

Another potentially damaging vote on the issue - which would be triggered by 12 of the governing body writing to the college principal to request one - cannot be ruled out, she said.

As the Government pushes towards its target of 50 per cent of school-leavers going into higher education it may seem anachronistic that St Hilda's - along with St Mary's College in Durham and the Cambridge colleges of New Hall, Newnham and Lucy Cavendish - exclude half the population.

Nicola Ayton, a first-year English student at St Hilda's, said: "I can see the pros in terms of representation across the university but I don't think segregation is the way to achieve that. It's not a convent, it's just a university. It's not a real environment to be in. An all-women community is not the real world.''