London, March 12: After more than a century of educating women, and only women, St Hilda’s College, the last single-sex bastion at Oxford University, votes today on whether finally to accept men.
In what could herald the most profound change in the college’s history, members of its governing body — not its students — will decide whether they can stomach the prospect of male undergraduates and fellows walking through its gates.
The debate has divided students — the “Hildabeasts”, as they are affectionately known within the university. More than half, 57 per cent, voted to keep the college’s single-sex status in a referendum last month.
It will almost certainly be a tightly-fought battle, with senior college insiders predicting that the pro-mixed camp will narrowly win the two thirds majority required for St Hilda’s to abandon its single-sex status.
It argues that the college is failing to attract enough “first preference” applications, with a large proportion of students allocated a college place through the university’s open application process.
Recruiting female academics, especially in the sciences, is difficult; less than 20 per cent of Oxford’s fellowship is female. It is also expensive because the college, as a result of equal opportunities legislation, has to fund some of its staff without university assistance.
“In 2003, young women of 17 are not easily persuaded that this degree of protectionism is warranted,” said Hilda Brown, the college’s vice-principal.
“They would prefer to compete on equal terms and enjoy the social diversity offered by a mixed collegiate society.”
But opposition remains strong. Dr Sally Mapstone, fellow and tutor in medieval English and an outspoken defender of the college’s single-sex status, believes the time is not ripe for change.
“St Hilda’s has a very distinctive identity,” she said. “In a college that is run by women, and where all the fellows are women, our students are taught to have the courage of their own convictions. Here, women are encouraged to speak out, have their own opinions and be confident, which is invaluable for later life.”
Anita Avramides, a philosophy fellow, agreed. “We do sometimes find it hard to persuade 17-year-olds to choose a women’s college, but once women are in Oxford many tell us they wish they were at St Hilda’s,” she said. “They come to appreciate the virtues of an all-women college.”
Students against changing the status quo have launched a “Lilac for Ladies” ribbon campaign in a message of defiance to the college authorities.
Penny Berrill, 22, president of the Junior Common Room, proudly sporting a lilac ribbon on her chest, said: “It’s ludicrous to suggest that a single-sex college is an anachronism in the 21st century.
“In a university where less than 20 per cent of fellows and only 45 per cent of undergraduates are women, there is still massive female under-representation. St Hilda’s is a place where women can express themselves.”
Mia Jackson, 22, dressed in lilac from head to toe, said: “We should be proud of our unique identity rather than apologetic about it. It’s liberating to be here. We can talk without minding our Ps and Qs. We are also made to believe that there’s absolutely nothing we can’t achieve.”
But students in favour of going mixed said it was time that the college — cruelly labelled “the virgin megastore”, but also “St Thrillda’s” after a student bared her breasts near Magdalen Bridge — tried to shake off its image as a sanctuary for lesbians and nymphomaniacs.
Anna Biddlestone, 20, said: “When you go to another college and people find out you are from St Hilda’s, they think you are predatory and there simply to steal their men. It drives me mad.” Others said that St Hilda’s was merely an “academic dumping ground” for students rejected from their first-choice college.
Sarah Barnett, 18, said: “It’s upsetting to be in a college where so many people are desperate to go out and socialise with other people. At the end of the day, university is not all about studying. It’s about life - and this involves meeting men.”