Tompkins Table 2015: Magdalene College has seen a remarkable improvement

It's no surprise which Cambridge college has come top of this year's Tompkins Table, says Richard Garner. But the runner-up has solidified its recent performances – despite an obsession with jelly
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Magdalene College, Cambridge, will be celebrating for all the right reasons today. In recent weeks, the college has gained notoriety for japes planned by its all-male drinking society – the Wyverns – which was hoping to reinstate a female jelly-wrestling competition cancelled two years ago after female students accused the organisers of sexism. Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and now master of Magdalene College, stepped in to once again ban the event.

Today, though, Dr Williams can rejoice in the knowledge that his college has seen a remarkable improvement in its academic performance – rising eight places from 10th in 2014 to second in the current league table of Cambridge University degree passes. In 2013, it came in 15th place and in previous years, it has languished near the foot of the 29-college league table.

It is the college's best performance in the Tompkins Table – the list compiled exclusively for The Independent every year by Peter Tompkins, an actuary who is himself a Trinity College alumnus. The table has, over the past 30 years, been eagerly scrutinised by academics at the university.

You may wonder why we are eulogising the college that came second. That is because first place was gained by Trinity – the fifth year in succession that it has topped the league table. Last year saw it notch up a record percentage of first-degree passes for any college – with 42.9 per cent. This year, it was well ahead of Magdalene, its nearest rival, with 41 per cent achieving firsts as opposed to 33.1 per cent in the runner-up.

Magdalene College is one of the smaller Cambridge colleges – with just over 330 undergraduates. It is a sister college of Magdalen College, Oxford. Perhaps its most famous alumnus is the diarist Samuel Pepys whose papers and books were donated to the college on his death and are now housed in the Pepys Building. The college boasts a portrait of the famous diarist by Peter Lely, which hangs in its hall.

Other well-known former students include University Challenge's Bamber Gascoigne, Charles Kingsley – author of The Water Babies, the actor Michael Redgrave and Selwyn Lloyd, the former Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Speaker of the House of Commons. The Royal Family gets a look in with the Duke of Gloucester and Prince William of Gloucester listed among former students.

The college was founded in 1428 as Buckingham College and renamed St Mary Magdalene College in 1542. (Magdalene, incidentally, is pronounced Maudleyn – in honour of the man behind the refoundation in 1542, Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII. The final "e" in the name was introduced to distinguish it from Magdalen College, Oxford.)

It has gained a reputation in the past for adopting a "traditional" style of education. It was the last all-male college in either Oxford or Cambridge (admitting women as late as 1988. Oxford's last all-male bastion, Oriel admitted them in 1985). When women were eventually admitted to Magdalene, the move was greeted with protests from some male students who wore black armbands and flew the college flag at half-mast.

Now, though, while historical perceptions paint it as having a bias towards applicants from the independent sector, it has a mixed student body in terms of sex, race and education background. In recent years, its access programme has attracted many applicants from state schools – which makes its rise up the league table all the more pleasing to advocates of widening participation among the country's elite universities and their colleges.

Dr Stuart Martin, senior tutor and admissions tutor at Magdalene, describes this year's results as "fantastic" and says: "We have achieved this with a student population of men and women from a range of backgrounds and school types, from both overseas and UK domiciles who have performed consistently well across the humanities and the sciences."

In addition to Magdalene, three other colleges showed a major rise up the league table this year – Peterhouse, up from 12th to sixth, St John's going from 16th to 10th and St Catharine's, climbing from 21st to 13th. The biggest losers in the table were Jesus, down from fourth to 11th, and Clare, from eighth to 15th.

According to Tompkins, Trinity's feat in securing a fifth top place in succession puts it on an equal footing with King's College – which achieved this in the early 1990s. King's now languishes in 18th place – down four places since last year's table.

Trinity's achievement is all the more impressive since it is the largest of the university's 29 colleges – although it is numbered among the richest. It was established way back in 1546 and boasts the highest number of Nobel Prize-winners of any Cambridge college – with more than one in four of all those gained by Cambridge alumni. Former graduates include Prince Charles –although he only gained a 2:2 when he graduated in 1970. It admitted female students in 1976, in contrast to Magdalene and its lowest position ever in the Tompkins Table is eighth.

The college claims its recent success has been down to its decision not only to play to its traditional strengths in science and engineering but to focus on the arts and the humanities too.

Back at Magdalene, though, the college motto is "keep the faith" – something its students have certainly been doing in the past three years as it has made its way up the league table.


1. (1) Trinity 41.0% (firsts)

2. (10) Magdalene 33.1%

3. (6) Churchill 31.7%

4. (5) Emmanuel 30.3%

5. (2) Pembroke 31.6%

6. (12) Peterhouse 30.3%

7. (7) Queens' 28.8%

8. (3) Trinity Hall 28.8%

9. (11) Downing 27.5%

10. (16) St John's 28.1%

11. (4) Jesus 27.4%

12. (13) Selwyn 25.5%

13. (21) St Catharine's 25.1%

14. (9) Christ's 23.8%

15. (8) Clare 26.0%

16. (20) Robinson 24.8%

17. (17) Sidney Sussex 21.6%

18. (14) King's 26.3%

19. (15) Gonville & Caius 22.8%

20. (19) Fitzwilliam 22.8%

21. (22) Newnham 19.3%

22. (18) Corpus Christi 21.1%

23. (26) Murray Edwards 16.6%

24. (23) Girton 16.6%

25. (27) Hughes Hall 15.9%

26. (25) Wolfson 18.1%

27. (24) Homerton 13.0%

28. (28) St Edmund's 18.5%

29. (29) Lucy Cavendish 9.1%