Can Oxford's last all-female college remain a man-free zone?

Argument over the future of St Hilda's has split the academic community. A deciding vote is expected by the end of this year. Nick Jackson reports
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The Independent Online

It is the last night of the Oxford term, and small packs of bleary-eyed male undergraduates hang around outside the forbidding gates of St Hilda's College, queuing for the dance. It is easy to understand their eagerness and impatience: they are, after all, pursuing an endangered species: the Hildabeest. Last month, undergraduates at St Hilda's voted by a majority of 55 per cent, and for the first time in their 113-year history, for men to be admitted to Oxford's last women's college.

On the other side of the college gates, the reasons for the result are clear. "It is a bit of a strange environment," says Shalini Guhawardana, a St Hilda's fresher who voted for going mixed. "It really doesn't need to be like this in the modern day. When you say you're from Hilda's, people are, like, 'Oh!'"

The term Hildabeest is not always one of affection, and is sometimes used to refer to students' supposed nymphomania. "A strong factor for students voting to go mixed is that there's a very negative perception of St Hilda's," says Ailbhe Menton, the Junior Common Room (JCR) president. "We spend a lot of our time defending ourselves against negative stereotypes in the university."

It is a reputation that may explain the unusual popularity of the "bop". Many in the college think it also explains the college's unpopularity among applicants. Only a quarter of the undergraduates at St Hilda's applied to the college. The rest were offered places via open applications to the university or after being rejected by a chosen college.

The JCR vote was, technically, irrelevant; only the governing body can decide whether to admit men. But the result has reinforced the feeling on the governing body that women no longer want to go to a women's college. "There is a marked decline in interest in going to a women's college," says the principal, Judith English. "The concern for the long term is not having sufficient high-quality applicants to the college."

Lady English has been leading the campaign to admit men to St Hilda's. In 2003, the reformers were only one vote short of the two-thirds majority they need to change the college statutes. Two separate issues are at stake; as well as the question of whether to admit men as students, the governing body is looking at whether the college needs to bring in male fellows, mostly for financial reasons.

While the college is protected from the impact of equal-opportunities legislation, the university is not. This means the university cannot fund lectureships in the same way as it does at other colleges. St Hilda's estimates that within 10 years the cost of funding these lectureships will have risen to £400,000 a year.

But money is not the only problem. Some academics, like students, are uncomfortable at a women's college, and Lady English says that, on occasions, academics offered posts have turned them down.

Yet Claire Lynch, the president of the Middle Common Room (MCR), which represents graduate students, believes that with a leadership enthusiastic about St Hilda's status, the college could survive as a women's college. Other graduate students agree, and at the beginning of this month the MCR voted 81 per cent in favour of keeping the student body single-sex, and 66 per cent in favour of keeping the Senior Common Room (the fellows) single-sex.

Some serious endowments over the past few years have meant that the college's finances are in good health for the time being. Lynch points out that, with all the other reform going on at the university, a new way of funding lectureships could be devised that would allow the university to fund them without breaking equal-opportunities laws. "It's down to the leadership of the college," she says. "The university prides itself on tradition. If the leadership doesn't ask, changes simply won't occur."

Some fellows also believe that more confidence about the college's status could bridge the image gap. "We have a niche market and there are still women who want it," says Anita Avramides, a philosophy fellow at the college. "Women value this place enormously once they're here. We have to get that message across."

One reason why St Hilda's is so highly prized by Lynch and Avramides is because women are so under-represented elsewhere in the university. Only 8.6 per cent of professors and 23 per cent of lecturers at Oxford are women. If St Hilda's goes co-ed, those numbers will drop further.

Oxford has not always been an equal-opportunities employer and it is taking time to catch up. "St Hilda's does an enormous job in Oxford, practically and ideologically," says Avramides. "An all-women Senior Common Room gives jobs for women and role models for students, and shows that women can run the show."

An all-women's college may also benefit students, according to research done by the psychologist Jane Mellanby in 2000. Women of equivalent ability routinely get far fewer firsts than men at Oxford, particularly in the humanities.

Dr Mellanby found that this was mostly because of lower confidence. "I suspect that being at a women's college and being taught that they can do it just as well as chaps gives them confidence," she says. Last year, seven out of St Hilda's 12 English finalists got firsts.

Dr Mellanby left St Hilda's at the beginning of the year, bringing the governing body one vote closer to going mixed. With the decision rumoured to be a matter of just one or two swing votes and Lady English retiring in the summer of 2007, a vote is expected before the end of the year.

Lady English says she will wait until she is sure that the governing body will choose to go mixed. "It wouldn't be helpful to have a vote that doesn't achieve change," she says.

In private, some students accuse the principal of only appointing fellows who support her plans. Lady English dismisses this as nonsense, but the fact that the accusation is being made is indicative of the bad blood surrounding the debate. Some alumni are worried about the damage being done to the college. The former Conservative minister Gillian Shephard, now Baroness Shephard of Northwold, has been a strong advocate of St Hilda's as a women's college in the past, but now believes the time has come to bring the debate to an end.

"The college could succeed very well as an all-women college," she says. "But if the will is lacking and if enough people feel the college is threatened, you've got to be wholehearted, you've got to go mixed."

No way, say the dissenting dons. "The argument that people should give up their convictions and put their vote behind the majority is a dangerous way of thinking," says Avramides. "We should vote for ourselves and as we see fit for the college. The fact that we don't take the decision lightly shows our commitment to women's education."

It is a refusal to say die that suggests that reports of the Hildabeest's demise may have been exaggerated. But if the feminist cloister does not get back in fashion soon, the boys at the gates won't have much longer to wait.