Higher Education: Blue stockings greet blue socks: Somerville college, Oxford, is preparing to admit its first men next year. Stephen Pritchard reports

Stephen Pritchard
Thursday 18 November 1993 00:02 GMT

In years to come, few Somervillians will deny that admitting men to the Oxford college was controversial. A vocal protest from the students earlier this year gave the case against mixed education a high profile. Less reference was made to the experience of women's colleges that had already gone mixed. And on the whole, these colleges see the move as a positive one, in contrast to the gloomy predictions of Somerville's undergraduate protesters and their supporting alumni.

This week, boys who have applied to Somerville will sit the Oxford entrance exams; in the first week in December they will be interviewed at the college. Young men will walk through the college gates as students rather than as guests for the first time in October next year.

Somerville's main reasons for becoming mixed are academic. According to Catherine Hughes, the principal, the greatest problem has been in recruiting fellows, especially in the sciences. Often a fellowship remained unfilled for several terms. The decision to admit male students went hand in hand with a decision to appoint male fellows.

'One of the virtues of having an all- women fellowship in an all-women college is in providing role models,' says Mrs Hughes. 'But there is something condescending in having a mixed fellowship and an all-women junior membership.'

Falling undergraduate applications also worried the college. 'We had been trying hard to keep the option of an all-women college,' explains Mrs Hughes. 'There was a great effort in 1986, when the college decided not to go mixed, to attract more women to apply. That did not succeed.'

During its last years as a single-sex college, Somerville has found women who were offered a place would reject it, preferring to study in a mixed environment at another university. So as well as male applicants, the college expects to see an increase in the number of women applying, and especially those making Somerville their first choice.

Somerville's optimism about the future is supported by the experience of St Hugh's, the last Oxford women's college to admit men. Its first mixed intake came up in 1987. St Hugh's is now the fifth most popular college in Oxford by applications. Academic performance has also improved. In mathematics, last year's finalists gained nine firsts from 15 students.

'St Hugh's went co-educational with enormous ease,' says David Robertson, Dean and Fellow in Politics at the college. 'We have not become a men's college with a few women around.'

But a college is more than simply the sum of its academic results and it is the social and pastoral impact of men that worried Somerville's female students most. In fact, the first years of mixed admissions to St Hugh's were heavily male- dominated, and the college atmosphere reflected that.

'In some senses life is rougher,' says Dr Robertson. 'Things get broken, it is noisier. But I feel that St Hugh's is a more self- confident place and people are going out into the university more willingly. Before, this was more an escape.'

Trevelyan College, Durham, admitted men in 1990. As at Oxford, this leaves the university with just one women's college, St Mary's. Durham colleges do not teach undergraduates, but they are responsible, along with the university, for admissions.

Deborah Lavin, principal of Trevelyan, says: 'My reason for proposing to go mixed was academic. A college needs to attract good students so it is important that it is popular. Women do not want a women's college. Staff and students did everything they could to encourage girls but it did not work.'

Miss Lavin introduced the proposal with a debate and by circulating a paper listing the reasons for and against admitting men. 'On the whole, the college felt conservative and doubtful,' she admits. 'But we could not just stay the same.'

Trevelyan opted for a slow approach to the change. No one who applied to the

single-sex college would be there when it went mixed. So when the first men were admitted, 'it was the biggest non-event you ever saw', says Miss Lavin.

Progress since has had its problems, but Miss Lavin feels the gains outweigh the losses. 'Academically it has been positive. When we decided to go mixed we were second from bottom in applications. Now we are third from top - in three years. And we have virtually equal numbers from men and women.

'But one of the aims was to have more women in science. In the last year of single sex we had four engineers. Since then we have had very few women engineers. We are addressing it; we want to encourage people to escape gender stereotypes.'

Trevelyan and Somerville are sensitive to suggestions that in deciding to admit men, they have harmed the prospects for women in higher education, especially by reducing the number of female role models. Yet both colleges aim to preserve their expertise in women's education. 'Becoming mixed was not an unpainful process,' says Miss Lavin. 'We were all women; feminist or not, there is a solidarity. I was aware that we were departing from a valuable tradition.'

'Somerville can continue to do a lot promote women's education,' says Mrs Hughes. 'You have a college whose fellows have spent most of their lives admitting women. That does not disappear because you also admit men. We are full of professional women and we understand the choices facing them.'

For the future, Mrs Hughes hopes that the public controversies of the past year have satisfied the students' honour. 'I think it is already a college looking forward,' she says. 'The JCR is determined to make it work well.'

(Photograph omitted)

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