Women-only Cambridge college celebrates 50th birthday

Since it was founded, New Hall College, Cambridge, has championed the education of women from all backgrounds. On its 50th birthday, Hilary Wilce revisits her alma mater
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The Independent Online

The youngest and most radical Oxbridge women's college celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a campaign to boost teaching and student support, but no plans to abandon single-sex status.

New Hall was set up in 1954, when women's places at Cambridge were limited. Today, the former men's colleges have long since gone co-educational, but New Hall's president Anne Lonsdale says the college will stay women-only.

"For some girls, coming to Cambridge is enough of a hassle in itself. Then there are others, maybe a girl from the first generation of a Bangladeshi family to go to university, who can only come if they can come to a women's college. And most alumni tell us that that is what they want, and most students say they like it, even those who thought at first they would rather be at a mixed college. They say they like having their own place to go to at the end of the day. Plus, there are lots of other advantages – very few people throw up on the stairs, for example."

The college has always been one of the smallest and poorest in Cambridge. It was founded in a borrowed bed and breakfast with only a shilling to its name, and even its 50th Anniversary Campaign is only seeking a relatively modest £8m, which it will use mainly to fund student bursaries and new fellowships.

But it has also always been fiercely independent and forward-looking, with a fundamentally different profile from other women's colleges. More than 30 years ago it opened its faculty to men as well as women, in order to make sure it had the widest choice of fellows, while from the beginning it offered places to girls with potential from a wide variety of backgrounds. Much of this character was shaped by its founder president, Dame Rosemary Murray, the first woman vice-chancellor of Cambridge who died last year.

"It had its own exam and picked people who might or might not get three As at A-level," says Lonsdale. "In terms of access, it was way ahead of the crowd."

Celia Clear, now chief executive officer of The Tate Enterprises Ltd, the commercial arm of the Tate galleries, remembers arriving for interview in 1965 from a job stamping driving licences for the Greater London Council. "I had left school at 16 and was doing my A-levels by correspondence course with the Rapid Results College. They were completed unfazed by this and believed, I think, that I would be an interesting addition to the mix, even if my A-levels were not sparkling."

This open-mindedness continues. Final year English student Ruth Roberts, 22, says that with only two academic A-levels, alongside two art-related ones, "I was hardly the archetypal Cambridge applicant." Yet the college took a chance on her, and she repaid its confidence by gaining a First in Part One of her degree (Cambridge degrees are done in sections), and a place for next year to do a doctorate in medieval literature.

However, New Hall remains low in the college league table of results and, as a relatively unpopular single-sex college, takes in a high proportion of students who have failed to win places at their first-choice college. Roberts admits, "It can still sometimes be seen as a bit of a stigma to go here."

But results are near the top when compared with how girls do in other colleges, "and we are almost always top of the value-added tables," says Lonsdale. New Hall undergraduates tend to make more gains between the first and second parts of their degrees than those elsewhere in the university. "We're better at maths than Trinity, and last year we were the best for physics in the whole university," adds Lonsdale.

And although the college still has fewer than 500 graduate and undergraduate students, many of its alumni have gone on to make their mark. Barbara Stocking, the director of Oxfam, who was at the college from 1969 to 1972, says, "I came from a very working-class background. My father was a postman and my mother stayed at home and didn't work. It was almost unthinkable for me to go to Cambridge, yet there was no snobbishness whatever. There was a real sense of equality, and a real commitment to women's education. It sounds unbelievable, but I almost didn't know there was discrimination against women until I left. It gave you the kind of confidence that made you feel you could take on the world."

Architecturally, too, the college was ahead of its time. In the 1960s, the architects Chamberlain, Powell and Bonn (who designed the Barbican in London) created an experimental white complex. The buildings, which are now listed, were put up on a site to the west of the city centre, on land donated by the Darwin family. They include a domed dining hall with a Tardis-type serving hatch that rises out of the floor, a sunken courtyard and an arch-roofed library. But they have cost millions in repairs. Problems came to a head in 2001, when a cable holding up the library roof gave way, the building had to be urgently evacuated. The college was forced to find £1.2m to save it. "We still owe £7m," says Lonsdale, "but our finances are coming round. We are making tremendous strides with our conference trade."

In recent years, the white-brick rooms and corridors have been turned into a living art gallery, showing works by contemporary women artists including Paula Rego, Barbara Hepworth and Maggie Hambling. The collection was started in the 1980s, to give women artists more recognition, and has now grown into the second-largest such collection in the world. Of the money collected in the anniversary appeal, £1m will go towards supporting this rapidly growing collection. "We need a ring-fenced endowment so no one can turn round to us and say: 'You're a Cambridge college. What are you doing with all these paintings? Why aren't you funding another research fellowship?'" says the development director Anthony Oliver.

But women, unlike men, tend to make their charitable bequests after death, and most of this college's graduates are still alive and kicking, so fundraising is an uphill task. "However, people have a huge affection and affinity for New Hall," says Oliver, "and that strong link means people do give to the best of their ability."

One former student, Ros Smith, a scientist working in the computer industry, has already given £1m and pledged to match campaign donations up to a second. Other support has come from BP, and from parents of alumni.

Yet despite her college's willingness to break free from tradition, Lonsdale is impatient with the pressures on Cambridge to modernise. "I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to respond calmly to the assertions of government. Since 1973, the university has had steadily decreasing resources per student, but has still managed to remain, by any standard you like, one of the top universities in the world."

She is deputy vice-chancellor of the university, and, at 64, has a long career in university administration behind her, first at Oxford and then at the Central European University. "A world-class research university is not like a business, so it is no good business people telling us what we should do," she says. "Researchers do not want to feel they are being directed. They do it for love, not for money. The salary of a lecturer is only £16,000. They are in it because they have a passion."

Also, she points out, while the tortuous, collaborative decisions favoured by the university may take time to make, they can then be quickly implemented; decisions imposed from the top are much more easily blocked or sabotaged. "You simply cannot underestimate the ability to keep on turning out top product, year on year, with less and less money," she concludes.

'Everyone here is so approachable': what the students say about New Hall

Har We Kan, 21, a second-year geography student, came to the college from Singapore. "I'd been at a girls' secondary school, and then a co-educational junior college for A-levels. I knew [New Hall] was a forward-looking, progressive women's college. And everyone here is so approachable. I am going to China to do some work, and Mrs Lonsdale, the president, who's an expert on China, has helped me with contacts. I don't know if presidents in other colleges would be as friendly and helpful."

Ruth Roberts, 22, a third-year English student, came from a state school background after a year out doing art and design. "I was nervous about coming, but you can walk into this place and feel immediately comfortable. I'd been at co-educational schools, but I like the fact it's single-sex. You don't have to worry about wandering to the kitchen in your pyjamas. A lot of people get pooled here and arrive feeling quite negative, but by the third year most are happy. I'm the art rep, and it's great to live surrounded by all these paintings. It's wonderful they've had the boldness to have things around that are not just pretty pictures."

Tabassum Khandker, 20, a second-year medical student, came from London. Her family is Bangladeshi. "I came here because my Dad rang round various colleges and this is the only one that responded. It's very friendly, and everyone is willing to help. You are completely part of the university here. The only thing is, I probably wouldn't walk back here on my own late at night."