Cambridge women’s college faces criticism for decision to admit men

Lucy Cavendish announces plans to admit male students in bid to “increase access for under-represented groups”.

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The college revealed on Monday 11 March that it would be admitting male and female students from the standard university age of 18 from autumn 2021.

Previously, Lucy Cavendish accepted women over 21, and was one of the three remaining women’s colleges in the UK, along with Newnham and Murray Edwards Colleges, both also at Cambridge.

All of Oxford’s former women’s colleges now accept  men, with the final one, St Hilda’s College, admitting the first cohort of male students in 2008.

The principal mission of the college when it was founded in 1965 was to enable mature women to study at Cambridge when women were “severely under-represented” at the University.

President of the college, Professor Dame Madeleine Atkins, said: “Women of all ages now have access to all Cambridge colleges as undergraduates, graduates and Fellows. As a responsible and forward-thinking organisation, it is now important for Lucy Cavendish College to offer opportunities to excellent students from non-traditional backgrounds, regardless of gender.”

The announcement was made after a series of consultations with alumnae, current students, Fellows, donors and staff. According to the college’s official statement, over 2600 people were involved in the decision-making process. The statement alleged that “the vast majority of respondents supported the College in ‘going mixed’”.

However, not everyone was happy with the decision. In response to the move, feminist writer Germaine Greer told The Daily Telegraph: “I think women get on better in their own environment. They are not being watched or judged on their sexual charms and whatnot, they are at home.”

Lucy Cavendish alumna, poet and writer Caron Freeborn tweeted: “So now women like I was won’t get a chance to study in a safe environment. Beyond grief. Shame on you.”

Anne Bruton also wrote on Twitter of her old college: “Lucy Cavendish was founded by female academics who believed the university offered too few and too restricted opportunities for women. They have lost what made them special.”

One current student at the college, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Cherwell: ” [The changes] have taken away one of the safe spaces that women have in the world.

This is especially true for mature women, who need that supportive environment during her university days. Going back to school full-time at a later age means giving up a job, as well as deal with family and childcare (if she has one).

Evidence-based research shows that women have lower self-esteem than men, hence, if we think back about the woman who decided to quit a job she’s good at for a degree, her self-esteem would not be as high as a man who also quit his job for a degree.

She will need extra support, her own space living and studying space and her own community where she felt safe and secure in herself. 

By giving up her unique admissions policy, Lucy Cavendish run the risk of no longer being able to be true to its original ethos in supporting the education of mature women.”

The college has pledged to be “mindful” of students’ concerns with commitments to provide women-only accommodation to those who request it for “personal, cultural, or religious reasons.”

Honorary fellows of Lucy Cavendish college include actress Dame Judi Dench, TV presenter and founder of the Women’s Equality Party Sandi Toksvig, and writer Ali Smith.

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